The association of aging with decline is a pervasive story line in American culture. But it distorts the truth of people's experiences, according to Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a resident scholar in the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.
Her new book, Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, is a wide-ranging manifesto that calls for a reexamination of damaging misconceptions about such issues as menopause, memory loss, late-life sexuality and end-of-life care.
In books such as Aged by Culture and Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife, Gullette, 69, has been a fierce critic of the negative messages society sends both men and women as they get older. But, she says, "I had never looked at the sources of ageism, or considered whether the situation was getting worse, or why it had gotten worse."
Mixing the personal with the political, and anger with compassion, Gullette tallies up the costs of America's misconceptions about aging. Among them: the disproportionate, and underreported, devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina on older New Orleans residents; the many botched cosmetic surgeries; the belatedly discovered dangers of hormone therapies; and a terror of dementia that blinds us to the remaining capacities of those closest to us.
The AARP Bulletin questioned Gullette about her message.
Q. What factors are contributing to an increase in ageism?
A. Midlife job loss is crucial. The baby boomers, the biggest and best-educated generation in American history, are flattered for their supposed might, but in fact were unlucky in their timing. With each passing year, they increasingly ran into job scarcity, downsizing, outsourcing, involuntary early retirement and unemployment. Men typically suffer age discrimination in their mid-50s, women almost 10 years younger. The great American dream, where you could look forward to getting respect and saving money as you achieved experience, has been disappearing.
Q. What about people who are no longer working?
A. The ageism directed at them comes from the "duty to die" rhetoric and the terror of forgetfulness. The "duty to die" crowd is trying to convince you that the only way to save money on health care is to resign yourself to refusing treatment in some hypothetical future. Well, I don't want a lot of tubes either, but I might decide I want treatment so I can see my granddaughter get married.
Q. How did you first become aware of — and interested in — ageism in our society?
A. I was shocked to discover, as I was turning 40, that we were supposed to be worrying about our hair, our skin, our teeth, our jobs, our future. Beauty, sexiness, health, smarts — all our great qualities were being air-freighted over to the young. It soon stopped being personal and became political.