The idea that there is a new kind of old age, experienced in a radically different way from old age throughout history, is integral to the selling of longevity. For who would want to live to be 100 if, as individuals and as a society, we accepted or even suspected that the new old age, after a certain point, encompasses most of the vicissitudes of old-fashioned old age? There is a considerable amount of truth in the assertion that many old people today — if they are in sound financial shape, if they are in reasonably good health, and if they possess functioning brains — can explore an array of possibilities that did not exist even a generation ago. "If" is the most important word in the preceding sentence. The idea that we can control the future by aggressively focusing on and taking care of ourselves is an article of faith for baby boomers. Yet in many instances, successful aging — or the outward appearance of successful aging — means only that a person has managed to put on a happy face for the rest of the world; present an image of vigor and physical well-being even when bones are aching; smile even though a heart may be breaking with loss; do everything possible to conceal memory lapses; demonstrate a consistent willingness to try anything new; and scoff (with just the right, light touch of humor) at those misguided contemporaries who refuse to "live in the present."
Here's what one cannot do and be considered a person who is aging successfully: complain about health problems to anyone younger; weep openly for a friend or lover who has been dead more than a month or two; admit to depression or loneliness; express nostalgia for the past (either personal or historical); or voice any fear of future dependency — whether because of poor physical health, poor finances, or the worst scourge of advanced old age, Alzheimer's disease. American society also looks with suspicion on old people who demand to be let alone to deal with aging in their own way: one must look neither too needy for companionship nor too content with solitude to be considered a role model for healthy aging rather than a discontented geezer or crone. … It's great to be old — as long as one does not manifest too many of the typical problems of advanced age.
Copyright © Susan Jacoby 2011. Read an interview with Susan Jacoby.