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Interview With Margaret Morganroth Gullette on the New Ageism

'Agewise' calls for reexamination of negative views

Q. How does a negative view of aging hurt younger people?

A. Ageism is more than a "negative view" of old age or middle age. It provides a set of terrifying anticipations. Unfortunately, some of these reflect realities. Younger people learn quite early on that there may be no good future after youth. And younger people are beginning to dread aging into old age: Some say they will commit suicide to avoid it. The image of the Eskimo on the ice floe — the old person abandoned by her society — is becoming better known. "The Eskimo" is feared as a parable of America's wicked hostility to elderly people. As a result, aging is the new fate worse than death.

Q. How do you think the large numbers of boomers will affect the idea of aging as decline?

A. There is a lot of rhetoric about how such a large — and allegedly powerful — group will change later life, and many images of well-to-do healthy people out on the golf course or actors smiling at each other through perfect teeth in film romances. But the full reality is far different. If the boomers had power, they would not permit midlife job discrimination. Home foreclosures, the high death rate of the uninsured between 55 and 64, the disappearance of pensions, the rise in the age of full Social Security benefits — these realities undermine the positive images of boomer happiness. The disconnect is astonishing.

Q. You argue against hormone replacement therapy. Do you see any legitimate role for it?

A. I follow what enlightened doctors say about hormone treatment: the least amount for the least time, if there is no other option. I have never called it replacement therapy. That term depends on a tired old paradigm from the early 20th century, when hormones were thought to reign over bodily functions. Women were seen as being deficient when they became post-menstrual. Now that we know estrogen is a carcinogen, we can see that the pharmaceutical companies were reckless about our health. "The greatest experiment ever performed on women" — that's what Barbara Seaman called that therapy.

Q. What about cosmetic plastic surgery, which you also denounce?

A. I had to have a facial cosmetic surgery after removal of a skin cancer. The surgeon was skilled, but the result — still red, bumpy and lopsided — made me realize how reckless women are who go under the knife in the mistaken hope of looking younger. The fact is, surgical numbers are dropping. It's not chic to look fixed. Looking natural is the pleasant new fashion in feminist aging past midlife.

Q. You note that sexuality, rather than declining, may actually improve over the life span, especially for women. That may be true in partnered relationships. But isn't the contraction of romantic and sexual options for older women — along with the attendant loneliness — a significant issue?

A. Absolutely. Men often lose potency or interest or patience with age, so even being partnered is no guarantee. For hetero women to have better sex in later life, men have to live longer and be healthier. Any anti-ageist women's movement should recognize that good health and longevity start in utero. They require good jobs at rising wages, ending the gendered wage gap, expanding seniority systems, national health care, raising men who oppose violence, preventing wars. Loneliness is a cultural issue, not necessarily a biological one. The cult of youth has meant that men look for younger women and ignore perfectly nice sexy women their own age. Boys need to be raised to be nonsexist and anti-ageist.

Next: Dementia and cognitive impairment.  >>

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