PHILADELPHIA -- In the shadow of the Liberty Bell, another kind of revolution is underway in this historic city -- a social revolution.
That was the buzz at the recent meeting of the American Society on Aging and the National Council on the Aging (NCOA), where professionals challenged the stereotype of older Americans as a crushing burden on society. "Alarmist demography," said Margaret Morganroth Gullette of Brandeis University.
"We need to open society up," said Tom Endres of NCOA, who pointed out that roughly 80 percent of the population over 65 is healthy. Yet these men and women who do not fit the frail stereotype are being ignored by institutions that serve older Americans. They are marginalized by the media, devalued in the workplace, shunned by politicians.
A woman in the audience summed up the mood when she stood up and cried: "It's a movement. . . . Onward! Upward! We need slogans! We need to march!"
As I sat on several panels at the conference and listened to this swell of voices calling for change, I thought about earlier social revolutions. I remembered those heady days of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, the "click" of awakening to how sexist stereotypes permeated the culture, the anger at discrimination in education, laws and the workplace. I also remembered the great hopes for opportunity and a more equal pursuit of happiness -- for both women and men.
I felt the same kind of excitement in Philadelphia. I am part of this movement, personally and professionally: as a grandmother, as a writer and public speaker. I see the potential in "Changing the Face of Aging," as the conference program was entitled. But I'm also wary. It's important to find ways to avoid the pitfalls of the past. Here's a start:
Stand united. Just as the women's movement suffered when it pitted the professional working woman against the stay-at-home mom, this movement could suffer if it pits the healthy majority of older Americans against the not-so-healthy minority -- what professionals call the "frail fraction." The line between the two groups gets easily blurred as people move back and forth from one category to the other throughout these later decades.
"Frailty doesn't mean you can't be productive; it doesn't mean you can't be engaged," said Nancy Henkin, executive director of Temple University's Center for Intergenerational Learning.
The shared goal -- whether you're healthy or frail -- is to break down bias against older Americans and create opportunities to be valued in the society. There's no mileage in fighting among ourselves over resources or squabbling about who represents the real face of age.
Stay true. In the early wave of First and Only Women in male-dominated fields, we subscribed to the male definition of success. In the spirit of "Annie Get Your Gun," anything a man could do, we could do better. But this be-like-a-man approach failed to broaden the definition of success beyond the traditional male standard -- to the continuing disadvantage of women (and, I would argue, men, too.).
In a similar way, older men and women have adopted the definition of successful aging in terms of youthfulness. Most of us try to pass for younger. Vitality and self-worth are measured in how young we appear and behave. Steve Slon, editor of AARP magazine, pointed out that "still" is one of the most vicious words of prejudice. As in: she's still walking three miles a day; he still comes into the office. Or, look at Gramps and Granny -- they still like to dance. That nasty little "still" word suggests that positive examples of aging are like young people, not what you'd expect of old folks.
This is ageist self-loathing. It's important to define success in our own terms. You don't have to jump out of a plane, start a business or get married (although you might do these things) to find purpose and love in these later decades. We need to establish our own identity as pioneers of longevity. Many of us have a different set of values than our younger selves. The definition of success may be less getting ahead than making a difference to our communities, to our families and friends.
Reach Out. As women pushed for changes, men became the enemy and the battle of the sexes got ugly, from the boardroom to the bedroom. The battle over aging could also get ugly if the very old are pitted against the very young. The young-old divide-and-conquer strategy is already present in the political arena as the country debates the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But this generational Shock-and-Awe rhetoric is a phony war. The old and young are natural allies. Most men and women worry about their grandchildren and the world they will leave to future generations. They want to protect programs for children and create new ones. There needs to be more attention to intergenerational dependency and bonding -- more programs that bring older Americans to work in schools and child care facilities, for example. Rather than an ownership society, we are a stewardship society. We have a role as advocates of children. Just as women and men need each other, so do the old and the young.
The movement to redefine aging is just beginning. We're in the awakening stage and swing from outrage to possibility. There's the zing of energy in the air. But we need to get it right.
Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. To send U.S. mail, see the address on Page F2; mark the envelope "My Time."