Don’t Age Me Out of Living

Judith Guest (photo by Sarah Whiting)

I had an interesting experience recently. I went to buy some wine and handed the clerk — a man of sixty or so — my driver’s license. He looked at it, looked up at me and said, “Wow, you look good!” Being the vain sort I am, I was flattered. “So do you!” I answered. “Mutual admiration society,” he laughed as he rang up my wine.

A casual pleasantry between strangers. Another example of ageism. Because what’s the other half of his sentence? For someone your age. As if we all have an identical set of physical characteristics — expectations of a certain demographic. Back when I was a ten-year-old listening to soap operas on the radio, my favorite, “The Romance of Helen Trent,” opened with this kernel of wisdom: “Just because you’re old, romance in life need not be over! Romance can begin at thirty-five —  and even beyond!” Holy Valentine’s Day.At least we’re not as bad off as back then. But we still have a ways to go.

Since my 30s, I’ve hated those birthday cards with their black balloons and messages of doom: How does it feel to be over the hill? Don’t collapse your  lungs blowing out candles!And the myriad anti-aging products that flood the markets! Aveeno Absolutely Ageless. Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair. The message is clear: it’s good to be young, bad to be old. All the face-lifts, dye-jobs, and eye tucks are meant to disguise who we really are. Instead of feeling lucky — even privileged — to have lived to a later age, we’re supposed to pretend we haven’t.

In a New Yorker article this latest ism was described: “Like the racist and the sexist, the ageist rejects an Other, based on a perceived difference.” But this Other is a group that, “if all goes well, [she] will someday join. Thus, the ageist insults [her] own future self.The writer points out that prejudice is at the heart of it, but then goes on to say, “Older people increasingly aren’t simply creeping off into a twilight world  of shuffleboard and sudoku.

Wait a minute … how prejudiced  is that? Sudoku is a tough mind-game with numbers as its basis. Shuffleboard is another version of curling, which seems like a strenuous sport to me. We won’t ever get past this narrative about age until we stop embracing myths and biases.Yes, our youth-worshipping culture likes to turn its older members into “less than” citizens. We are terrified of that ultimate invisibility, Death. So we recoil at any sign of its approach.

In Ashton Applewhite’s book, “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism,” she rails against the current stereotypes, while insisting that many people  who reject them are simply ageists in reverse, bragging about and touting their youth-oriented accomplishments. According to her, nobody’s doing it exactly right.The reality of aging is that it’s when serious illness and physical complaints are most apt to strike. But it’s also when leisure time and the ability to use it creatively are at a premium. My next-door neighbor Doug, 86, plays bridge, entertains his friends, drives to classes, eats out, and regularly makes art. My friend Vivian, 87, teaches mahjong, does watercolors, stays politically active, and is constantly welcoming new people and new ideas into her life.

As for me, I keep doing my part to banish the myths. I swim, cook, and do sudoku and the New York Times crossword puzzle every day. I sleep nine hours a night, go to the movies weekly, and write novels, screenplays, and letters-to-the-editor. Twice a year I drive 13 hours to and from my cottage in Michigan by myself. I freely admit my age, 81, when asked.As for age-appropriate, there’s no such thing; there’s whatever works for me.

Currently I am reading a book about wolves. The book indicates that wolves travel with the oldest and most infirm at the front, giving direction and setting the pace. The five strongest come next, and act as a protective line for those leaders. In the center are the rest, with five more strong ones bringing up the rear. And, lastly, the Alpha, who keeps an eye on the whole pack. A group of smart, communal animals, moving at the elders’ pace, helping  each other, watching out for all.

We humans could learn a lot from them.