We are living in a youth-obsessed culture, to be sure, and subtle forms of ageism are all around us. But it’s better than it used to be. Whenever I start feeling gloomy about my aging body and my diminishing prospects, I try to look at the bigger picture. When I put my life into historical perspective, I feel very thankful to be growing old now, rather than 100 years ago.
A Century Ago
Consider the facts. In 1919, the average life expectancy in the United States was 53 for men and 56 for women. People living past 60 were considered “old” and were blatantly discriminated against in the labor market. Job postings typically stipulated age requirements much younger than 60, and often younger than 40.
Older people were among the last hired and the first fired, and a majority of them were poor (America’s Struggle Against Poverty, 1900-1985, 1986).
Even people who had held long-time positions often found themselves financially strapped later in life. This is because very few employers offered private pensions, which became more common only after pension trust income was exempted from Federal taxation in 1926.
There was also no unemployment or disability insurance, no Medicare and no Social Security benefits. These would not be established until 1935 by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.
For all of these reasons, retirement was a luxury that few people could afford.
When they were no longer able to work, older people had to rely on family. The poor laws in many states stipulated that an adult child, if financially able, was legally required to provide food, shelter, care and clothing for a parent who was unable to support him/herself by reason of age, infirmity or illness. Failure to comply with the law could result in conviction and imprisonment in the county jail or work house (Jankowski, “Public Response to the Needs of the Poor,” 2011).
If they had no children to support them, older people relied on other family members, friends and the kindness of strangers. When assistance from the Department of Public Welfare was available, it was doled out sporadically and in small amounts, often in the form of a grocery order, fuel, clothing, a little money toward the rent, or a temporary job for a younger family member (Jankowski, “Public Response to the Needs of the Poor”).
The last line of defense against homelessness was a charity-sponsored old-age home or the county poorhouse. County governments levied taxes to house and feed the poor and billed city governments for the cost of providing that care to their residents.
In 1923, two-thirds of the residents in poorhouses nationwide were age 60 and older (Old Age and the Search for Security: An American Social History, 1994). After the Great Depression hit in 1929, even more older adults became dependent on the state for their food and shelter. (For more details, See David Wagner’s The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution, 2005).
So Much Better Today
Life has improved dramatically for older Americans. At the age of 62, most of us quality for Social Security retirement income. At age 65, we have national health insurance in the form of Medicare. As a direct result of these national benefits, county poorhouses have disappeared.
We not only live better, but we live longer. Currently, the average life expectancy is 76 for men and 81 for women, approximately 25 years more than a century ago.
To Whom Much is Given
While 100 years ago, little was expected of people living past 60, we now have far more opportunities and, I would argue, obligations to assist others. As the saying goes, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
Indeed, cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson now calls the period of life between 55 and 80 – when most of us are still healthy and engaged, whether retired or not – a “new adulthood” or Adulthood II. Informed by the lifespan developmental theory of psychologist Erik Erikson, she urges us to think of this added time as a new developmental stage for individuals and societies – an opportunity to gain self-knowledge and enhance the well-being of people and the planet (Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, 2010).
Unfortunately, the great irony of our time, says Bateson, is that “even as we are living longer, we are thinking shorter.” Many of us are focused on our own comforts and concerns rather than using this time “to restore a dimension of long-term thinking to our decision making” – a dimension that future generations can learn from and build upon.
How might we use this new stage of adulthood in a way that is more generative for ourselves and others, now and in the future?
We must answer that question, not just in terms of what we do, but also in terms of who we are — our way of being in the world.
From this perspective, aging well (consciously, creatively, hopefully) can be approached as a spiritual practice. It entails self-observation, self-reflection, and a willingness to put our thoughts, beliefs and actions into a larger social and ethical framework. Being able to articulate what we do with our added years and why we do it is part of our legacy to future generations.
Bateson poses this question to each of us in Adulthood II: “What knowledge do I have that needs to be shared in some form before it is lost or overlaid by more recent and, perhaps dangerous, preoccupations?”
…. If you think that you have nothing of value to pass on to others, think again! Your very way of being in the world and interacting with others can be a valuable lesson. Bateson reminds us that knowing how, as well as knowing what, is a form of wisdom. In fact, “wise doings” often carry a message stronger than knowledge shared verbally.
Here are some wise “ways of being” that elders can cultivate: remaining curious and interested in the world around us; listening carefully to ourselves and others; following inner promptings; making and keeping commitments; building and maintaining strong relationships; practicing kindness and civility; demonstrating care for ideas, traditions, history; donating time, skills and resources to assist others; mentoring and encouraging younger people; and supporting individuals and groups that promote our values and hopes for the future.
Thankful for this Time
So, as an American in my 60’s, I am thankful for the social supports I have that my ancestors did not. And I am thankful for the extra time I have to gain wisdom and practice “wise doings” in my little corner of the world.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a researcher, writer and retired English professor. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. (See Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Lifestory Writing, 2000 and Endnotes: An Intimate Look at the End of Life, 2008). Most recently, as a hospice volunteer whose 100-year-old mother is a hospice patient, she has been exploring the meaning of death and dying. In our series on “Heart and Soul,” she will consider how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.