Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in Americaby Margaret Morganroth Gullette
Let’s face it: almost everyone fears growing older. We worry about losing our looks, our health, our jobs, our self-esteemand being supplanted in work and love by younger people. It feels like the natural, inevitable consequence of the passing years, But what if it’s not? What if nearly everything that we think of as the
Let’s face it: almost everyone fears growing older. We worry about losing our looks, our health, our jobs, our self-esteemand being supplanted in work and love by younger people. It feels like the natural, inevitable consequence of the passing years, But what if it’s not? What if nearly everything that we think of as the “natural” process of aging is anything but?
In Agewise, renowned cultural critic Margaret Morganroth Gullette reveals that much of what we dread about aging is actually the result of ageismwhich we can, and should, battle as strongly as we do racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. Drawing on provocative and under-reported evidence from biomedicine, literature, economics, and personal stories, Gullette probes the ageism thatdrives discontent with our bodies, our selves, and our accomplishmentsand makes us easy prey for marketers who want to sell us an illusory vision of youthful perfection. Even worse, rampant ageism causes society to discount, and at times completely discard, the wisdom and experience acquired by people over the course of adulthood. The costsboth collective and personalof this culture of decline are almost incalculable, diminishing our workforce, robbing younger people of hope for a decent later life, and eroding the satisfactions and sense of productivity that should animate our later years.
Once we open our eyes to the pervasiveness of ageism, however, we can begin to fight itand Gullette lays out ambitious plans for the whole life course, from teaching children anti-ageism to fortifying the social safety nets, and thus finally making possible the real pleasures and opportunities promised by the new longevity. A bracing, controversial call to arms, Agewise will surprise, enlighten, and, perhaps most important, bring hope to readers of all ages.
Award-winning feminist author Gullette (Aged by Culture) takes a hard look at the connection between exaggerated fears about the burden of caring for the elderly and a struggling economy in which older workers have a hard time finding employment. "Being 'too old' is too large a part of the ongoing economic meltdown to ignore." Describing prejudice against older Americans as bigotry, Gullette refers to negative stereotypes, such as the term "greedy geezers" and the mythical Eskimo practice of putting the elderly on ice-floes, as "hate speech" that makes acceptable the notion that the old have a duty to die. In turn this encourages "practices such as preemptive suicide or medical manslaughter" now being promulgated, in her view, by bioethicists, political economists, futurists, biogerentologists, and politicians. Gullette likens this to the dangerous metaphorical foreshadowing that went on in Nazi death camps. Describing the elderly as "alien, repulsive or boring," not only makes eugenic practices more socially acceptable, Gullette argues, but lessens respect for life. While admitting to the reality of the "bitterness and perplexity and humiliations" of decline, Gullette writes poetically and persuasively in general, and tenderly about her 96 year-old mother, who has suffered considerable memory loss, increasing blindness, and physical frailty but retains her cognitive faculties and joy for life. Important social criticism from a prominent scholar.
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AgewiseFighting the New Ageism in America
By Margaret Morganroth Gullette
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2011 Margaret Morganroth Gullette
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Eskimo on the Ice Floe
IS IT AGING OR AGEISM THAT CAUSES THE PAIN?
I've got a lot of art to make ... instead of ideas drying up and flying away, I feel like, you know, they're coming, coming, coming ... I think about it in that way. God, I want to be here for a long time. ROBERTA HARRIS, VISUAL ARTIST, WHOSE WORK APPEARED IN A 2008 EXHIBITION OF WORK OF OLDER WOMEN ARTISTS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON
Consider "the Eskimo on the ice floe." At first I thought it was nothing but a joke.
In a New Yorker cartoon by Lee Lorenz, two figures in parkas are launching a third on a tiny circle of ice: the punch line is "Hold it—we almost forgot his benefits package." This version appeared in 2006, as news about businesses and local governments firing midlife workers was being widely reported. In an earlier cartoon by Sam Gross, also published in the New Yorker, an elderly Eskimo floating away calls back to those waving safely from the shore, "Are you sure this ice floe is going to pass by the nursing home?" In the 2008 political season, a quip ran that Republican candidate John McCain, known for his attacks on the provision of government services, boasted: "I'm on Social Security but I'd rather be on an ice floe."
These satirical jokes point beyond their immediate targets to a cultural iceberg that people need to protect themselves from. I want to explain the lethal power of what is four-fifths hidden here. Start with the fact that few versions humorous or otherwise use the word "old," the Eskimo's main characteristic. That doesn't have to be stated. Hidden though it is, everyone already gets it. The ice floe story comes in numerous versions, but is always about younger people sending older people out to die in the cold.
IN SERIOUS CONTEXTS, that "Eskimos" killed their old people is often treated as anthropological fact. In The Coming of Age (1970), Simone de Beauvoir mentions several "Eskimo" ways of getting rid of elders, even though she warns that her ethnographic data are of uncertain value. In 2000, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article by a student who had worked in Alaska, recounting how a toothless ninety-seven-year-old Yupik man had come to the point where he said he felt useless, before walking off into the tundra to commit suicide. The problem is, the story wasn't true. The student admitted it wasn't based on an actual person, and the student's tutor, a medical doctor in Nome, said there is no such tradition. JAMA apologized. But because the story of native elders forced to die in Arctic cold circulates widely as fact, it has plausibility—enough that JAMA accepted the article and that most people are surprised to learn that the myth is just that—a myth.
I admire cultural anthropology because its working attitude is suspicion toward conventional wisdom. My mother, an anti-ageist, then ninety-four years old, objected as soon as I told her the story, "Why would they say this about the Eskimos? Why do they want them to seem so mean?" Geronticide is an old story, but it hasn't always been set near the Arctic Circle. The brilliant feminist contrarian Rebecca West, writing in 1912, mentioned with disdain "the Tierra del Fuego theory that the aged are useless, dangerous, and ought to be abolished, by exposure if possible, by a club if necessary." (People who think that demography rules should note that 1912 came before the so-called new longevity: there weren't even so many of them, older people, around then.) It seems there's a history over the past century of the rise and fall and rise of perceptions that senior citizens ought to be abolished.
The point is that the Eskimo geronticide myth is proliferating now. As an age critic, the truthiness of this story is important to me and not its truth. The ice floe bearing away a human being is a fantasy of a society in which social murder or coerced suicide or voluntary self-extinction of elderly people as an age class is necessary, or even desirable. Deciding whether such a society is acceptable or a monstrous deviation from human values is one of the struggles I see going on beneath the frozen, glittering surface of our own storytelling.
Why here, why now? Isn't this America, the opposite of the ice floe? We hear about the bounty of the new longevity. Many forces have combined to democratize aging in America. The result is that many more classes of people live longer and for more of that time healthily—a phenomenon known in public health as the compression of morbidity. Some boast about the longevity revolution, as well we should. Longer healthier life could mean relief from overwork and work's frustrations, more outdoor sports, hobbies, "bonus years," sex and remarriage, post-parental friendship with adult offspring, later-life creativity, volunteering, and activism—the progress narratives that some people already live out and that others should have the right to anticipate for themselves. Referring to all the articles beaming out that "sixty is the new forty" or "fifty is the new thirty," Katha Pollitt, a poet and columnist, quips, "Old is the new young!"
We don't see older people much in the mainstream media, but when we do, the images are indeed of robust people with good haircuts and gleaming teeth. Their stories and images abound in certain venues: AARP, the Magazine, Sunday newspaper supplements, pop "anti-aging" books, ads for exotic treks and tropic cruises, descriptions of "vibrant" retirement communities. (People say that promoting successful aging improves the image of old age and of older, frailer, more vulnerable people, but many critics doubt that such "success" is transferable. This leisured age class is not considered, by themselves or others, to be really old. "Old" means everything they are not.) If you have picked up whatever you know about later life from such sources, you might think that all older Americans were affluent, fit, happy, and under seventy-five.
Yet if Americans now feel the need to contemplate scenarios of premature death inflicted on the old, it says some extremely important things, not about polar peoples, but about our country's menacing decline ideology today. Ageism is waging undeclared wars against our enjoyment of our longer later life.
Imagining the Future Life Course
Some Americans plan to be that Eskimo. In conversations and books, blogs and articles, people mention suicide as a possible out in their own future. They think they can correctly foresee their own decrepit self and will want to act on this image by ending their worthless later life. Baba Copper, a formidable activist for lesbian and anti-ageist causes, was in a group of younger women who, when asked to envision their later lives, said that they would be dead or would commit suicide before getting to be old. In Over the Hill, Copper wrote, "I sat there thinking, "Wow! They believe that they would rather commit suicide than be like me!"o The rock-and-roll song "My Generation" sung by the Who in 1965, notoriously stating the desire to "die before I get old," gets a lot of circulation. For younger people, aging-into-deep-old-age, which is what many people think of as aging, is the future they imagine for themselves. Of course it's imaginary. What else could it be? No one at any age can envision with precision a next self twenty or more years older. But why should the anticipatory image be so decrepit and disabling?
The contemporary shared narrative about later life hammers the inevitable slide into decline, with a better now and a worse later. A much worse later. The younger women did not in fact see Copper herself as their future, which could have been exhilarating. The Boomers, early and often described as aging, are now endlessly told how much they fear it—in gleeful or jeering tones, as if that were a historical anomaly rather than a prudent assessment of later life in the United States. People see ahead of them, in grim shadowy forms, the prospective life-course narrative that the dominant culture provides—an unlivable mind and unrecognizable body, mountainous expense. Some of the evils they anticipate might never occur or could perhaps be prevented—after all, there are countervisions and alternative experiences. But it's as if nobody has a good old age anymore, let alone a good death. Something in American culture blocks out the joyful and the political images, causing people to leap over them to final images of helplessness, decrepitude, pain, abuse, and demeaning death. The Eskimos on the ice floe aren't just old; they are dead men walking. The anticipated image of old age is becoming so one-sided as to be terrifying.
Philosophers explaining why aging might be terrifying usually say because it leads to death, a statement about Thanatos that I used to accept as very likely even though I still don't find aging-into-old-age, in itself, terrifying. But the explanation misses something interesting that is happening in the relationship between these two last things at the present time. Now death—at least imagined way in advance, by healthy younger people, as vaguely, somehow, a choice—can seem preferable to aging-into-old-age. Aging is the new fate worse than death.
ISN'T A DREAD so fundamental to human nature—the dread of death—immune from history? Apparently not. Here is historical change in a realm where people have not believed history operated. Where does the material come from that fills their heads? We started to see in the introduction how powerful forces, converging, are conferring hideous new meanings on being older and distorting the promises of the new longevity. But who could have expected that one outcome of the new regimes of decline would be a dread contagious to people so young, or that they would feel it intensely?
What do people who believe the story of Eskimo parricide feel about the vulnerable old person exposed on the ice? One woman interviewing a pundit on the Web asked whether the Eskimo family gave the old person vodka; she had a vision of an ordeal that would need anesthetizing. Joni Eareckson, writing a memoir about her relationship to Christianity, describes herself at twelve coming out of a theater with her family after seeing an Anthony Quinn movie called The Savage Innocents (1960), in which an Eskimo grandmother is left behind to die. Joni had found the scene heartbreaking: "The image of the old woman had been our long-feared nightmare while growing up," she remembered of her adolescence. Troubled, Joni had asked her father, "Didn't she know she would die on that ice floe?"
The twelve-year-old was doing important imaginative ethical work, breaking down her childlike solipsism and overcoming the inability to imagine being much older than one is. Joni could have been asking about volition, the depth or shallowness of parent-child relations, the degrees of awfulness of ways of dying, and whether it is possible to resist being left to die. But her father missed her anxiety. He answered, in a way meant to sooth, only the part about volition: "She just knew it was her time, honey." The Eskimo's stoic, heroic, self-abnegating willingness to die is crucial to the current myth of the ice floe, one key to its viral proliferation.
A person left to die outdoors by adult children, believing they represent society's will, would feel not only the physical pangs of shivering to death, but also the irrevocable torture of abandonment, the burning sense of injustice and ingratitude, the panic of helplessness—of which we have a close Western model in King Lear on the heath. Wouldn't each of us anticipate our own misery if we were abandoned to die in the cold? Well, not necessarily.
Not Long for This World
Our ability to imagine the feelings of the unwanted matters, because a second set of commentators won't be out on the floe. Other people—old people—will be. Ought to be. I remember well the first time I heard this sentiment uttered. A group of us were sharing a friend's summer rental, having cold drinks around the pool. It was a beautiful bright early evening. A sixty-ish New York professional said, as phlegmatically as if he were talking about the price of groceries, "My mother ought to be put on an ice floe. She has a miserable quality of life, she's an enormous expense, we do nothing but care for her." The group listening included his brother and his brother's wife, who actually did care very affectionately for the widowed mother, who herself was paying the expenses.
Do angry filial projections, especially against mothers, explain the widespread references to the Eskimo death fantasy? Not likely. Despite Freud's Oedipal theory, despite the psychoanalytic bugaboo of gerontophobia, despite costly right-wing efforts to create intergenerational hostility in the 1990s, huge majorities of midlife offspring do care. They visit their parents, call them, do their errands, give them presents, enjoy their company. They get advice, child care, gratitude, and gifts in return. If they can, adult offspring protect their parents from scams: bad reverse mortgages, shoddy long-term health-care companies, elder abuse. Millions of people care for their parents if they become frail or sick or suffer from cognitive impairments, even if they did not receive perfect love or find it lacking now. Most are women. As Glory says about her fragile father in Marilynne Robinson's novel, Home, "To please him was so potent a motive that it displaced motives of her own." The beautiful culture of caregivers is becomingly increasingly enlightened about the kinds of care that weak and impaired elders respond to best.
It's a mystery of grace how such goodness survives. These normal filial relationships are now heavily laden with popular discourses about parents being burdens and adult offspring being overwhelmed, which misrepresent the situation, dishearten all participants, deny the grave public health issues around unpaid informal care, and bring some old parents to despair. On the other hand, having hundreds of millions of affectionate adult children doesn't stifle the asps writhing out of decline ideology. A senator can love his own darling mommy and still cut Medicare reimbursement.
No, it isn't matricide or patricide with their messy emotional subtexts, but "ageicide" that is in question. Geronticide by ice floe is an imagined social policy in which the victims are not family members like "my parents" or "our grandparents," but "old people" in general. The analogy assumes that those others are unwanted and that society rather than the adult child commits the crime. And it also assumes a society of drastic scarcity so like that of "starving Eskimos" that only their alien solution will work for us.
How can we be so like them? The paradox is that the United States has both world-historic wealth and rampant inequality on measures like income and health—not to mention world-historic debt. Americans do not understand the complex character of the twentieth century's slow democratization of longevity. They read a lot about a plateau of health that extends the midlife way into what used to be considered old age: this is the new, twenty-first century pattern. But other middle-aged people still live, as it were, in the nineteenth century, without health insurance, access to health information, or up-to-date health care. And whether chronic and degenerative diseases strike at midlife or twenty-five years later, patients encounter a system of research and care still anachronistically set up to deal primarily with acute illness, unequal in quality, extravagantly high in costs, and stingy about desired alleviations like home care, long-term care, and hospice.
Excerpted from Agewise by Margaret Morganroth Gullette Copyright © 2011 by Margaret Morganroth Gullette. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the author of three previous books, including Aged by Culture, which was chosen a Notable Book of the year by the Christian Science Monitor, and Declining to Decline.
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