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Why Our Society Is Ageist

There is a strange conflation in our American society between growing old and becoming infirm. And there seems to be a sense of shame connected with infirmity.
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My young friend, Lila, who just celebrated her 57th birthday, told me that her mother, Elizabeth, was reluctant to see her friends anymore because, as Lila said, "She wanted them to remember her as she used to be."

How sad. Elizabeth is only 83, and is quite healthy by my standards. I will be 94 in February, 2012; I can't walk more than one block without running out of air, and I take lots of pain killers to ease arthritical pain. When I look in the mirror in the morning, I see an old face, but one with a vibrant look of curiosity in the eyes. With the help of a caregiver, I take a hot shower every morning and gratefully accept my caregiver's help in putting on my clothes, especially my stretch stockings. I do some exercises recommended by my physical therapist.

Whenever the pain lets up, we go to the local Y and I walk in the water, use an underwater bicycle and soak in the spa. That's the physical routine. Since I'm a writer, and a retired teacher, I've signed up for two play writing groups and I go to plays and concerts. I discuss politics vigorously with other activist friends. Once in a while I cook for friends, for my son and his wife. My grandchildren are off doing their thing; I like my life!

Why does Elizabeth fear old age? Why does anyone? There is a strange conflation in our American society between growing old and becoming infirm. And there seems to be a sense of shame connected with infirmity, in spite of all the wheelchair accommodations in our streets and the electrically propelled chairs whizzing along the sidewalks and the streets. It's this sense of shame that I don't understand. It isn't as if the ageing process was something we could control and/or manage. Bicycle, motorcycle and automobile accidents render people of any age infirm and dependent upon all kinds of physical support to be mobile. Are we ashamed of becoming crippled in any way? I think we are. Political correctness phrases like "Otherwise enabled" don't really fool anyone, least of all a person in a wheelchair or on crutches or someone walking with a cane. The "crippled ones" know how they feel; they know how debilitating pain really is, and they know how difficult it is to stay mobile.

Any self-image that prevents people like Elizabeth from engaging fully with life is a destructive self-image. Conversely, it's when we engage fully with life that we find ourselves enjoying that engagement. We feel satisfaction. If we accept someone else's image of us as true, it becomes true, no matter how damaging or uplifting. If that image doesn't conform to one that satisfies us, we slowly destroy our own possibilities.

There are many societies where deformed or crippled children are hidden, because the parents feel ashamed that they have birthed an imperfect child. Some societies encourage infanticide, yet at the same time revere the ones who survive to old age. Whether the old ones are revered or not, the fact that they have survived the hazards of living makes sure that they are often regarded with awe and respect by other members of their society. In South Korea, anyone living up to and beyond the age of sixty, becomes automatically wise. There are special ceremonies celebrating this achievement, memorialized in paintings resembling great feasts. The celebration is especially important for women, who become liberated from societal restrictions once they reach the venerable age of sixty. In that society, living past the age of forty or fifty is remarkable; in the United States, living past 100 used to be worthy of a signed letter from the president.

When I lived in South Korea about 30 years ago, I noticed that women over the age of sixty felt encouraged to go into business for themselves, and in general seemed to be happier than the under-60-year-olds. When we learn that aging is not a societal disease, it may quietly disappear. When I was thirty-two, I had a serious skiing accident, and had to wear a steel brace for almost a year. I recovered mobility, but I think my body never forgot that serious injury. I thought of myself as accomplished physically and it is now difficult for me to concede that I qualify as truly disabled. I am learning new ways of living; I am learning to accept my physical limitations, and to live within them. It's not easy, but then my life has not been easy, either.

I think we need to accept ageing as a necessary process, not as a disease. Aging is a process that begins with birth, and does not need to be conflated with infirmity.

Rhoda P. Curtis is the author of "Rhoda: Her First Ninety Years," a candid memoir of a first-generation American woman who was willing to change the direction of her life every twelve years, and "After Ninety: What." Read her blog on Red Room.