Redefining Aging (AARP Speech)

Excerpts from the Closing Keynote AARP National Leadership Conference, April 30, 2004 Washington, D.C., Appx. 600 AARP leaders in attendance Copyright 2004 by Mariah Burton Nelson

Published in Representative American Speeches 2006

Today I’m going to encourage you to take a leadership role in redefining aging. And I’m going to give you some suggestions for how we might do that.

The Gerontophobe

But first I have a confession: My name is Mariah, and I’m a recovering gerontophobe. Gerontophobia, of course, is ageism: the irrational fear of old people or aging. I like the term gerontophobe better. It’s more fun to say. It sounds more like a…

Audience: Dinosaur.

Yes. And, like a dinosaur, a gerontophobe is a huge scary mythic outdated creature that still has power over us. It whispers things in our ears like, “Old is ugly.” And, “Old is shameful.” And, “Whatever you do, don’t look or act old!”

I didn’t expect to become a gerontophobe. As child, I spent a lot of time with four grandparents and two great-aunts, one of whom lived with us for several years. I loved these people. But I don’t want to LOOK like them.

Yet now, when I examine my hands, I see Aunt Minnie and Aunt Ollie. When I look at my face in the mirror, I see my grandmothers. And if I put on my glasses, THEN look in the mirror… I see [peering at a mustache] my grandfathers.

And I’m only 48!

My grandparents and great-aunts were beautiful people. As a child, I could see that very clearly. Isn’t it amazing how vision really does deteriorate with age?

Acknowledging Your Age and Honoring Your Elders

Now let me ask you to do something. If you are 50 or older, please stand, if you’re able. (If you need to stay seated, please raise your hand.) Now, if you’re 60 or older, stay standing. Now, if you’re 70 or older, please stay standing.

These are our elders.

Audience: Spontaneous applause.

These are volunteers and staff who, like you, are dedicating their time and energy to a cause we all believe in. As our elders, they have contributed more than the rest of us, not only to AARP but to their families and society and, in many cases, the nation. They have gained a perspective that we can’t have. They know things we don’t know. They deserve our respect: for their experience, their contributions, and their wisdom.

Let’s give them another round of applause.

Audience: Rousing applause.

What did I just do? Two things. First, I asked you to acknowledge your age. Was that difficult? I could tell from the nervous laughter that for many of you, it was. And yet: You’re AARP.

If you’re going to play a leadership role in helping the country eradicate ageism, wouldn’t it be a good idea to be honest about your own age? If admitting your age made you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. There’s good reason for it.

Whose fault is it?

Audience: Ours.

Not really. I like to blame it on that old dinosaur, the gerontophobe. It’s helpful to externalize it, to realize that our ageist attitudes are not inborn; they’re acquired by living in an ageist society.

Yes, we all have a gerontophobe within –- but we’re not, at our core, fundamentally ageist people. It’s just our conditioning, and we can successfully overcome it.

Second, I asked you to acknowledge and show respect for our elders. If you come from a family or culture that habitually demonstrates respect for older people, that may not have felt new for you.

But for many of you, that did feel new. I think your spontaneous applause arose not from any ritual you’ve grown accustomed to, but rather from a deep need to acknowledge and publicly thank your elders.

From the expressions on the faces of the people over 70, I can tell that your heartfelt gratitude felt new to them as well, and very welcome.

As you know, as a society, we don’t applaud our elders. We don’t even talk to them. We don’t visit them. We don’t make sure they have adequate food and shelter and health care.

The Power to Make It Better

[AARP CEO] Bill Novelli has asked us: What’s one powerful thing AARP should do to “make it better”? One powerful thing AARP could do to make it better is to redefine aging.

As I prepared for this presentation, the phrase “redefine aging” came up over and over again in conversations with [AARP leaders] Mary Foerster, Lee White, Joe DeMattos, Hugh Delehanty, and Cathy Ventura-Merkel.

This concept is described in the Member Value Agenda that was approved just this week by your board of directors. Goal #5 states, “AARP makes a significant contribution to shifting the perception of aging in this country toward a vision of creativity, wisdom, and empowerment.”

This is what I want to talk about today: redefining aging. Why? Because the way it’s currently defined is so inaccurate, disrespectful, and discriminatory. Because ageism hurts all of us.

Hugh Delehanty, Editor-in-Chief of Publications for AARP, told me recently, “America is already redefining aging. It’s happening. The question is, Will AARP lead in that effort, or try to catch up?

I’d like to see us play a leadership role.” I would too.

My Background

I’m not an expert on aging (though I’m getting more experience every day.) I know that you’ve already given a great deal of thought to aging, and have a vast network of programs, plans, and policies in place, along with legislation, litigation, and more.

I do have a psychology degree, and masters in public health, and I worked at hospices for several years, as a volunteer and as a volunteer coordinator. But my expertise really lies in sports, success, leadership, and language. I’m interested in identity and terminology, and how those influence self-esteem. I’m interested in social change movements, and have been involved in a few, most notably the women’s sports movement.

In a way, I’m in the business of redefining things. I’ve written about how sports participation is changing women; how women are changing sports; and how relationships between women and men change as they play and work together on teams.

I like to think I’ve played a role in redefining “athlete,” and even redefining “woman.” Now I’d like to redefine aging. But I can’t do it alone. I need your help.

An Athletic Identity

I believe we are who we are because of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. As I’m telling you some of my stories today, I hope you think about your own stories: sports stories, but also the kinds of things you say to yourself about your body, your age, your aging process, and what it means to you to grow old. (Nice phrase, isn’t it? You can’t grow young. You can only grow old.)

I hope that, as an outsider (and an aspiring member,) my perspective will help you think about some things in new ways.

I brought my Stanford basketball uniform to show you. I played five different sports in my two high schools in Pennsylvania and Arizona, then arrived at Stanford in 1974, and this is what they gave us for a basketball uniform. What’s it called?

Audience: A pinney.

Right. It goes on like this, like an apron, and is symbolic of those days when women were “supposed” to stay in the kitchen. Fortunately, it was not the WHOLE uniform.

How do you think my teammates and I felt?

Audience: Like second-class citizens; angry.

Yes: Angry, naturally, like anyone who is treated as a second-class citizen. The men had real uniforms. The men played in Maples Pavilion, which seats 8,000. The men had paid coaches and 12 scholarships. We had volunteer coaches and no scholarships and played in the dinky “women’s gym,” where the walls are so close to the court you have to put your foot up after you do a layup so you don’t smash into the wall.

We staged sit-ins in the athletic director’s office. This was 1974, but we had HEARD about the sixties, so we spent all our free time sitting in the athletic director’s office, demanding real uniforms, paid coaches, scholarships, and access to the “big gym.” We demanded that he implement Title IX — the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions — which had just passed in 1972.

Finally, in my junior year, we received real uniforms and access to the big gym. The year after I graduated, Stanford gave women 12 full scholarships. In 1990 and 1992, Stanford won national basketball championships. I like to think that through my activism as well as my athleticism, I helped “build the program.”

After graduating from Stanford, I was recruited to play for a French professional team, and also drafted onto the New Jersey Gems of the WBL, the first U.S. women’s pro basketball league. (I now think of that league as the LNEH: The League Nobody’s Ever Heard of.)

So I had a choice: France or New Jersey? Paris or Piscataway? No offense to those of you who are from New Jersey, but having grown up in Pennsylvania, I’d already been to New Jersey. I had never been to France. So I went to France.

The following year, I did play for the Gems. So I’m a former professional basketball player, but more importantly, I’m an athlete.

Being an athlete is still very much a part of my identity. Everywhere I go, I encourage others to think of themselves as athletes. I guarantee you: If you think of yourself as an athlete, it will change the way you walk, the way you work, and the decisions you make about leadership, teamwork, and success.

My athletic identity is changing as I age. At six-two, people have always asked me about basketball, but the questions have changed. People used to ask, “Do you play basketball?” Now they ask, “DID you play basketball?”

I don’t play basketball anymore. But I swim two miles most mornings, or lift weights. I’ve got a resting pulse rate of 44. I can hit a golf ball 240 yards. (Golfers will understand that I use that statistic because it’s more impressive than my handicap, which is more relevant.)

Every day, I draw on my athletic experience and identity to bring courage, confidence, and commitment to excellence in my work as an author and speaker.

What If We Reclaimed the Word Old?

Identity matters. It shapes our sense of self and our interactions with the world. So what about that identity, “old”? What shall we do about that little three-letter word? Must we distance ourselves from it, protesting that we are not old?

Can we lobby effectively for people over 50 if we’re pretending we’re not over 50, or pretending we’re younger than we are, or accepting the belief that there’s something feeble and embarrassing about the word “old”?

Seems to me it could be empowering to claim it, to own it. If we don’t do this — if our social change movement on behalf of people 50-plus is based on the premise that we are not old, or that only people 90-plus are old — then aren’t we sending a mixed message?

Women do not consider it a compliment when told, “You’re one of the guys.” People of African heritage do not consider it a compliment when told, “You don’t look black.” Yet we still offer these as compliments: “You don’t act your age.” “You don’t look your age.” “You’re young at heart.” And, “You look pretty good, considering your age.”

From Martin Luther King to Gloria Steinem to Ellen DeGeneres, social change leaders have urged us to eradicate internalized shame — the sense that, because others don’t like us, there must be something wrong with us –- by claiming the words that have been used against us.

We have adopted the words “black” and “woman” and “lesbian” and “gay.” Some of these words sounded odd at first. The words black and African-American sounded odd, as opposed to negro or colored. The word woman sounded odd, as opposed to lady or girl. The words lesbian and gay still sound odd, even shameful and accusatory, in some circles. Social change takes time.

But gradually, language influences people’s beliefs. Maybe the word “old’ could be rehabilitated, and put to good use.

Old People Don’t Want to Be Defined by Age

Studies show that even old people can’t agree on a term. They don’t like “senior” or “elderly” or “older.” Naturally, they’re not crazy about “old folks,” “old bags,” “old hags,” “old biddies,” “old birds,” “old fangled,” “old fashioned,” “old and decrepit,” “over the hill,” “blue hairs,” “golden oldies,” “vulnerable,” “frail,” “declining,” “dowdy,” “doddering,” “not getting any younger,” and responsible for a “mountain of debt” that will become an “intolerable burden on society.”

No wonder AARP came up with “people over 50.” I think you’re onto something. Maybe the reason old people can’t agree on a term is that they don’t want to be defined by age. Nor do young people.

To “define” can mean “to limit,” and no one wants to be limited. I know I don’t. I want to accept my age, and listen to my body, and resist age discrimination, but I don’t want to be defined by my age any more than I want to be defined by my femaleness or the color of my skin or my height. I’m just a “person over six feet.” (Many old people say they feel invisible. Somehow, I think this is not going to be my problem.)

But to avoid being defined by our age, and to avoid joining that club called Old Age, we tend to deny that we’re old — or even in the Middle Ages. We lie about our age, and we try hard not to look as old as we are.

Greeting card: Psychologists say we go through seven stages of adjustment when we turn 30: Denial, Denial, Denial, Denial, Denial, Denial, Denial.

Greeting card: Turning 40 is like peeing in the pool… If you’re lucky, no one will notice.

Greeting card: The Dwarves at 50: Touchy, Baldy, Squinty, Gassy, Chubby, Cranky, Drafty

What If We Stopped Trying to Pass as Young?

Last week I went to the drugstore and bought some lotion. When I brought it home, I put on my glasses and saw that it said, Oil of Olay’s Age-Defying Daily Renewal Cream. Oh! I had thought it said Age-DENYING.

But maybe that’s the same thing. Age-defying, age-denying, what’s the difference? And why are we all trying so hard not to look the age we are? Whose fault is that?

Audience: The gerontophobe.

Right. Who else would decide that wrinkles are ugly? They’re not INHERENTLY ugly. This is just an outdated IDEA we have about wrinkles.

There are economic reasons why this dinosaur rears its ugly head. Know how much money the anti-aging products industry brought in last year? More than $17 billion, with a projected growth of 11 percent over the next four years.

My mother’s about to turn 80, and most of her friends are in their sixties. “They talk all the time about their ugly wrinkles,” she tells me. “That’s the word they use: ugly. Or they say they could never let their hair go gray, because they would look SO OLD. Well, I look old. I have wrinkles. And I know they love me. They’re very ageist, but it’s unconscious. They have no idea how much their words hurt me.”

I know another woman who’s 93. She rarely tells people her age. Why? “Once you’re over 90,” she says, “no one takes you seriously.” Here’s the kicker: She lives in a retirement home! She’s trying to have serious conversations with 70- and 80-year-olds, and they keep patting her on the head and saying, “You’re doing so well, dear.”

At various points in history, Jews have passed as Gentiles and black people have passed as white. There was a good reason for this: survival. Old people’s desire to pass as young may feel like a matter of survival now.

But I don’t think it’s helping our cause, and I know it’s not helping our self-esteem. Secrecy always leads to shame. Even if you have a very good reason for keeping a secret, when you pretend to be something or someone you’re not, you inevitably feel bad about who you are.

We need new ways to think about and talk about aging. Not talking about it isn’t working — any more than my “age-defying” daily renewal cream is working.

An Experiment in Reclaiming the Word Old

What if, just as an experiment, we reclaimed the word “old”? Maybe if we try it on, it won’t have so much power over us.

In a moment I’m going to ask you to say it with me: I’m old. I know it’s a word with a bad, boring, shameful, scary, grumpy reputation. But it’s just a word. If you’ve never said the word “old” out loud, and want to warm up to it, you can say “cold.” “I’m cold.” That’s easier. Or, “I’m bold.”

Seems to me that if we are going to take a leadership role in redefining aging, we’re going to have to get comfortable with this simple three-letter word. Even if it’s not true for you — even if you’re somewhere in the Middle Ages — what the heck, let’s practice saying “I’m old.” It will be true soon enough. Okay, here we go.

Audience: “I’m old.”

There. How did that feel? Would it be possible to say that sentence with pride, head held high?

New Language

Some new language is emerging:

* Middlescence: the turbulent, rebellious middle age of baby boomers (Gail Sheehy)

* Elder as a verb: to share wisdom with people who are younger (Rabbi Zalman Schlachter-Shalomi, who based this usage on an ancient Jewish tradition of elders making decisions and resolving conflicts)

* Elderweds: an older version of newlyweds

* Grandboomer: boomers with grandkids

* Boomeritis: injuries older athletes suffer when trying to do things their bodies can no longer do

* Silver ceiling: attitudes and policies that prevent older employees from rising in the work place

* Longevity bonus: the 30 years longer we live now (an AARP phrase); and

* Senior moments: we all know what those are, unless we’ve forgotten.

A Name for This Movement?

We need more language. We need a name for this movement, don’t we? It’s a civil rights movement, but it’s not THE Civil Rights movement. What shall we call it? Here’s one suggestion: All of us Aging with Respect and Purpose .

I’ve heard the question at this conference; Is AARP an association or a movement? I believe it could be both. You could effectively brand the movement to be synonymous with AARP. We also need a rallying cry.

Imagine a million of us marching on the Washington Mall. What would we say? How about this: We’re old. We’re bold. We’re always too hot Or too cold.

Not quite there yet? You have the power to make it better.

Midlife Astonishment

A Boston psychologist named Sarah Pearlman came up with this term: Midlife Astonishment. Basically, it’s that shock you get when you look in the mirror and say, “What the heck happened?” Pearlman calls Midlife Astonishment a “developmental crisis marked by sudden awareness of the acceleration and stigmatization of aging, and characterized by feelings of amazement and despair at the convergence of diminished physical and sexual attractiveness and the multiple losses and changes related to age.”

It can “initiate a disruption of one’s sense of self of identity and result in feelings of heightened vulnerability, shame, and loss of self-esteem.”

It’s probably fair to say that midlife astonishment precedes most facelifts.

I’ve identified two phases of Midlife Astonishment. The first is, “I’m going to die!” It’s been said, “Anyone who’s over 50 and not thinking about death is not paying attention.”

But as we begin to deal with creaking joints, faulty vision, and assorted other indignities and challenges, from bunions to bursitis to backaches; and as our parents die; and as we face the death of dreams and attractiveness as defined by this culture, we tend to become acutely aware of our own mortality. We tend to feel victimized by our own bodies, or by life. Some people never get past this phase. Depression, bitterness, anger, and withdrawal are in widespread in old people. F

ortunately there’s a second phase of Midlife Astonishment: “I’m going to live!” This is when you transition from a sense of victimization to a sense of freedom, choice, and clarity.

There are two keys to shifting into this second, empowered phase of Midlife Astonishment. The first is what I call Physical Intelligence. This is the ability to listen to one’s body and respond wisely to it. It’s not the same as knowing a lot about nutrition, exercise, or rest. We’ve all got access to that kind of information. Physical Intelligence is based on the kind of information our bodies give us each moment of each day. Your body talks to you, telling you what it needs. In fact, I bet your body is trying to tell you something right now.

Take a moment to practice your Physical Intelligence. Tune in, and listen to what your body is saying. The way it works is, if we respond wisely to these signals we get, our bodies tend to function pretty well. If not, our bodies go tell someone else – usually a doctor or emergency room technician. At that point, it’s much more difficult to give the body what it needs.

AARP has already taken a leadership role in sponsoring TriUmph, the sprint triathlon series. Now you’re developing a national walking program. AARP was quoted just last week in an article about older athletes on the cover of the Washington Post’s Weekend section.

Research has shown that nursing home residents who start lifting weights experience incredible improvements in strength and mobility, sometimes even discarding the walkers or canes that they had come to think of as inevitable accessories of old age.

Often, old people are not weak or frail due to old age. They’re weak or frail due to poor Physical Intelligence and insufficient conditioning. I recommend that Physical Intelligence become an integral part of how we redefine aging.

The second major key to an empowered, “I’m going to live” approach to midlife (and later life) is what AARP President Marie Smith called “ohana,” or family. Research has shown that people who have the support of their families or extended families suffer fewer physical and emotional maladies than people who are isolated.

Pearlman agrees that social support, affiliation, and a sense of belonging are keys to a healthy acceptance of aging. AARP already plays a major role in providing people over 50 with a sense of belonging. Pearlman also recommends: meaningful work or other interests; positive role models; spirituality; political understanding of the oppression of older people; and engaging in social or political activism on behalf of older people. AARP plays a leadership role in all of those ways as well.

Diving Into the Unfamiliar Waters of Old Age

Before we close, let me tell you a story about Mom. This is a story about identity, leadership, and confidence. My mother’s very athletic, and very competitive. But like many women of her generation, she didn’t have anyone to compete against.

I remember watching her swim laps at the Y. Some poor unsuspecting person in the next lane would finish a lap, and Mom would say, “Ha! Beat you!” She was not very popular at the Y.

I realized recently that’s why my mother had children: to create some rivals.

But my older sister had no interest in sports. My older brother loved baseball, but he had ear infections that kept him out of the water. So I got to be born.

Our first race took place in our neighbor’s pool. I remember it clearly. Mom was so happy. She had waited for this her whole life. I was five years old. She was 37.

If you want to picture us, Mom looked like I do now, tall and thin. At five, I was already… five-eight or so. I was wearing a suit with a skirt, like a ballerina’s tutu. Mom had bought that for me. Know why?

Audience: To slow you down.

Right! To increase drag in the water, slowing me down. Mom won that first race (“Ha! Beat you!”), but I joined a swimming team, and ditched the ballerina tutu, and each summer I’d challenge Mom to a rematch. She won when I was six, and seven, and eight, and nine, but each year I got a little closer, and finally, the year I was ten, I beat Mom. She disputes this, maintaining I was eleven.

We also teamed up — as many rivals ultimately do — competing in the mother-daughter relay at our swim club’s year-end championships. The daughters would swim the first lap, then the mothers would swim the final lap. I was never the fastest daughter but Mom was always the fastest mom, so we won that trophy for about ten years in a row.

Mom and I still compete. I give her a head start, because I’m a lot faster now — and also a lot nicer than she was. But I never let her win.

For years, I’ve been telling her about masters swimming, where you compete against people your own age and gender, in five-year increments: 40-44; 45-49; 50-54. S

he was reluctant, though, as so many of us are afraid to dive into unfamiliar waters. Finally, about ten years ago, when she was visiting me in Arlington, Virginia, I took her to my masters swimming practice. I sent her over to the far left lane, where my friends Helen, Lorraine, and Frank train. At that point they were all in their sixties or seventies.

After practice, Mom was thrilled. Know why?

Audience: She won.

Right! It was just practice, but she felt like she won. She gained confidence. When she returned home, she joined the Phoenix Masters swim team. That was the year she was 69. But she waited until she turned 70 before entering her first meet, so she’d be in the bottom of her age group, not competing against all those fast 65-year-olds.

That’s one of the many benefits of masters sports programs: People are glad to enter a new decade. And now Mom holds three Arizona state breaststroke records for women aged 75-79.

I tell you this story because you, too, probably know people who are reluctant to dive into the unfamiliar waters of physical fitness, or AARP leadership, of old age, or other challenges. You could take them by the hand, introduce them to a new environment, and help them the gain confidence they need to succeed.

All of us are reluctant to dive into the unfamiliar waters of old age. Those waters are deep and scary. We’ve never been old before. We have few role models who are proud of their age.

How in the world can we grow old gracefully, when surrounded by such ageist beliefs and behaviors? You can help us. You’re AARP. We look to you for leadership. You can play an important role in taking us by the hand, and leading us, and helping us feel less confused and afraid.

Now, how exactly can you play a leadership role in redefining aging? I don’t know. You’re smart people. You figure it out.

Seriously, I’d be honored to be a part of your team. Just let me know if I can help. You’ve already done so much.

Meanwhile, here are a few suggestions:

* Honor your elders.

* Redefine old: Creative, Wise, Empowered [AARP terms]

* Name this social change movement.

* Develop your physical intelligence.

* Tame the gerontophobe within.

* Hold a member contest to “Draw a gerontophobe” — or otherwise involve members in playful and effective ways of redefining aging, resisting age discrimination, and eradicating their own gerontophobia.

Emily Dickinson wrote, By a departing light we see acuter, quite, than by a wick that stays. There’s something in the flight that clarifies the sight and decks the rays.

We all have a gerontophobe within. We all hear that big dinosaur’s voice: “Old is ugly.” “Old is shameful.” And, “Whatever you do, don’t look or act old!”

But old age — or whatever we choose to call this time of departing light — can be full of understanding, excitement, opportunity, creativity, wisdom, and growth, a time when “we see acuter.”

It can be a time when we feel gratefully awake and alive. We need to celebrate and honor old people for their experience, wisdom, and contributions — not in a phony, patronizing way, but with heartfelt respect for who old people are, and what they have accomplished. We need to help them when they need our help. We need to redefine aging so it’s no longer associated with ugliness or shame.

This is already part of AARP’s mission, message, and Member Value Agenda, and I commend ALL of you, no matter how old you are, for your work in this amazing association. You also have the power to make it even better.

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