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My Time by Abigail Trafford

Aging: The View From Below

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page HE01

Children know best. They see aging for what it is:

"When people get old they get wrinkles on their face . . . but their brain gets smarter," wrote one boy.

Aging is active: "My grandma runs a lot and has a man," wrote another.

Aging has advantages: "Growing old means you don't have to brush your teeth anymore. You just take them out at night," wrote another.

Aging is more than work and school: "Older people like to fish and they go to church," wrote another.

These children's essays, collected by Donna E. Shalala, former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and now president of the University of Miami, present an innocent view of what it is to grow old in the United States. As she said at a recent conference in Miami, to the very young, aging is not a bad deal.

"Growing old can be fun if you let it be," wrote one of the children.

But then, something happens to kids on the way to adulthood. They don't see growing old as fun anymore. Very quickly, children start internalizing the stereotype of aging as no more than a period of decline. By midlife, many men and women have a case of full-blown Age Angst.

The problem stems from society's focus on the physical appearance of aging rather than the experience of living longer. Growing old is reduced to a biological happening rather than a narrative of growth and development. When it comes to age spots and muscle strength, the worst, not the best, is yet to be.

In the name of scientific truth-telling, we grown-ups unwittingly pass on these prejudices to the next generation. An example, cited by Margaret Morganroth Gullette, resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, is found in a traveling exhibit called the "Secrets of Aging," mounted by Boston's Museum of Science.

Society's Mask

In one interactive computer simulation, called "Face Aging," children ages 6 to 12 could have their individual portraits taken and then watch -- in horror -- visualizations of how their faces might change year after year over the next five decades. What did they see? Their familiar young faces, so full of promise, turned into alien masks marred by blotches, wrinkles, saggy jowls, gray hair and no hair, she pointed out.

"The children were almost uniformly shaken," wrote Gullette, author of "Aged by Culture" (University of Chicago Press, 2004). Who wouldn't be? The designers of the program had perpetuated the nightmare image of aging that is the cultural bedrock for advertising anti-aging products from face creams to cosmetic surgery. They hadn't thought about how to simulate the ways in which people become more beautiful, more expressive, more powerful, more intelligent, more content, as they grow older. "Instead, they worked from U.S. culture's preexisting notions of decline," noted Gullette.

And so this script of decline, which like a vicious disease has made its way into the collective DNA, then gets imprinted on fresh brains. "What children internalize is that decline is utterly bodily. It is not cultural," she said.

But aging is not all about the body. Aging is a narrative, a "prospective narrative, a progress narrative," Gullette continued. Since it takes a long time to grow old, most people live on prospective narratives to help them get through the life course. Is physical decline the kind of forecast we want to pass on to the young?

To be sure, it's not all Morning in America after age 50 (or after age 1, or 10). Biology plays a role. There are losses, from creaky knees to life-threatening illness. There are wrinkles and bad hair days. But that's not the whole narrative of aging.

Maybe we need to go back to the stories of childhood like "Alice in Wonderland" and turn things upside down.

My grandson is 5 years old. He's recently discovered a new kind of dinosaur, learned to write words, started at a new school and made new friends. Every time I see him, I think: Now he's the one who is really aging!

And wouldn't it be nice on his next visit, if he'd throw his arms around me and say: Oh my, Granny, how you've grown!•

Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address on Page F2; mark the envelope "My Time."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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