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Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Opinion Columns

Silver Threads

Commentary by JoEllen Collins


I was never blessed with a living grandmother, so I spent many fanciful hours as a child imagining the laps of white-haired and slightly pudgy old ladies, thinking how much I wanted to settle into one of them. Now that I am the age of the women I imagined, and several of my friends are grandmothers of long standing, I realize how outdated my concepts were. They were right for my era but wrong for todayís "elderly" woman.

One of the huge shifts in society as we get fully into the 21st century involves our expectations about and treatments of the aged. The frail or plump granny of old has been replaced by a woman who is healthy, active and full of vitality well into years that before now would have consigned her to a rest home. My daughtersí image of me as a potentially sprightly 95-year old may not be totally misguided. At least I hope so. While this is wonderful, I have noticed that there are still mixed messages about those of us who are members of AARP.

Even articles in respected publications, which analyze the effects on society of aging baby boomers and advances in medicine for an increasingly long-lived population, seem unable to resist a snicker or two. In the Sunday, March 7, edition of the New York Times, Peter Kilborn wrote an article chronicling the "Geriatric Mating Game." The piece reviewed the now-open communication of the existence of sexual pleasure and the age-old quest for companionship among the elderly in Scottsdale, Ariz. While interesting and thoroughly well-supported, the column couldnít resist subtly interwoven humorous jabs at the aged. One example was the reference to the "lure of the tango" that "rouses the elderly out of their La-Z-Boys." The column spoke of many people in their 60s, 70s and even 80s who are part of the "geriatric" crowd still sexually active and interested in romance. Iím afraid the overall impression I received was that this is something to giggle about, to condescend to from the perch of a younger person. Part of that, Iím sure, is that, just as we didnít want to view our parents as sexual creatures, it is uncomfortable to alter our perceptions of Grandma and Grandpa.

I must admit that I have some trouble with accepting my age. I donít want to be laughed at just because I am eligible for Social Security. I was talking with a friend the other day about Medicare and we both laughed at the reality that we are actually discussing Medicare benefits. I still feel like a 30-year-old, and here I am, being the source of wisdom about the programs I am lucky enough to have lived long enough to use! My mother died at the age of 59 and never enjoyed a quiet old age Ö or any old age, for that matter.

I can laugh at myself, surely. I have always been clumsy and so when I bump into things I make jokes about it and donít mind mocking my lack of grace. But, like the members of ethnic groups who can laugh at jokes about their characteristics as long as they themselves tell them, I find myself resenting the sniggers about people in my age bracket. I can laugh at myself, but donít let anyone else do it! As much as I value a sense of humor, I am losing it when it is directed at "seniors."

By the way, when I was in the Peace Corps, I was labeled a "senior" because I was over 50. When I first met my fellow volunteers I struck up friendships with most of them in their 20s and 30s. I donít think they ever viewed me as the "senior" I was (medically, the Peace Corps feared illness, so they assigned me to be relatively close to Bangkok hospitals. I wasnít sick one day of my tenure there). Ageism was non-existent in those surroundings, and as a result I was truly rejuvenated by the experience. It was only back in the United States that I encountered gasps at my age. Statements like "You donít look your age," while flattering, make me wonder at my worth should I truly "look" the age I am. I know few people of my age who own, much less spend time in, La-Z-Boys. Most of my contemporaries work hard and will work for several years longer than they ever planned. Most of my contemporaries are growing tired of jokes stimulated by Viagra (whose users arenít always aged) and columns like the one in the Times.

We may still be vital, full of life and, yes, even interested in love and romance. I think thatís terrific, and I also think it helps us live longer and fuller lives. I would hope that my inquiry in the form of the Beatlesí "Will you still love me, when Iím 64?" will be answered with a resounding "YES!" I would wish for some respect about all of that romance stuff, though. Let me have my tender relationships without the Timesí reference to my being "nimble-kneed" or to wearing "tight leather pants" or having to resort to "wrinkle creams," or having "cabinets of sex-enhancing drugs."

No one wants to be stereotyped. May you all live long enough to deal with this particular irritation!


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.





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