Lying about birthdays is for sissies

August 2016

Birthdays usually remind us to take our aging seriously. I just reached 68. While it is now often said that 70 is the new 50, 50 is the new 30, silver is the new blond, etc., the dominant US culture often marginalizes people as we age, particularly women.

Ashton Applewhite, in her new book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, points out that “You look great for your age.” is an insult. Any of us can look great at any age. Rather than being mean, biased, ageist, and insulting, just say, “You look great.”

So much of what Applewhite says is so well put, that rather than quote her extensively, I urge you to get her book.

An insight that I received about aging at the beginning of my gerontological career is that there is a point in our lives where we feel like ourselves, regardless of age. Our identity stays steady over the decades. Revered gerontological social worker Wendy Lustbader wrote a poignant tale about a 90-something woman in her book, Counting on Kindness.

When the woman agreed to let Wendy visit and be her social worker, the woman held up a photograph, perhaps a prom picture, of a lovely young woman in a gorgeous red dress. She said something like “I want you to remember that this is who I am.” The next time Wendy visited, she looked deeply at the woman and remembered her in the red dress. The woman sensed it immediately and said, “You know who I am.” I am paraphrasing, but the scenario has stayed with me over the years.

Often staff in health care settings, retirement communities, and especially nursing homes see a frail, compromised elderly person who may have trouble communicating. It can be so hard to learn who the person really is. Staff are often rushed and it can be emotionally exhausting to recognize every single person for who he or she is. But it’s crucial to good care and good relationships. In fact many experts posit that good relationships are the key to good care.

Some gems from another of Lustbaders’ books, What’s Worth Knowing:

  • “A good listener is someone who’s not talking.” Harold Jones, age 76.
  • “Retirement is a ridiculous idea.” Ben Rail, age 92.
  • “When in doubt, try the truth.” Martha Eastman, age 80.
  • “Don’t hide your age.” Henry Horton, age 90.
  • “All that matters in the end is that you are loved.” Edna Whitman Chittick, age 101.
  • “Doing good gets you out of bed in the morning.” Grace Stanchfield, age 96. I had the great fortune to get to know Grace well. She lived in an assisted living community where I took a group of UW Medical School graduate students every year. She was always ready to help, to interact with students, or to do any kindness.

Published by jeannettefranks

Jeannette Franks, PhD, is a passionate gerontologist and for over 20 years has taught ethics, grief and loss, and courses on geriatrics and gerontology for the University of Washington. Franks' most recent book is, To Move or To Stay Put: A Guide for Your Last Decades. Look for it now on the University Bookstore website It is also available at Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge. Franks previously published a definitive guide to independent and assisted living titled Washington Retirement Options, and often speaks on retirement options, disability issues, end-of-life issues and is an advocate for accessibility. She has a goal of making Bainbridge an elder-friendly community and is available to groups and families to discuss these issues. She served for nine years on the Kitsap County Advisory Council on Aging and Long-term Care. She also has the privilege of working in a small way for the past 15 years with the Suquamish tribal elders.

2 thoughts on “Lying about birthdays is for sissies

  1. I turned 70 in July & most people I tell are surprised. They say something like “No. You don’t look 70”. I find this quite humorous as I’ve never been 70 before so I don’t know what 70 is supposed to look like. I am reminded of my mom at age 85 was quite sharp. It was only the last three years of her life that we saw any decline. So I’m happy to say that I reach 70 and I try to remind myself that it is something that is denied to many people.


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