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The End Of Men: Gender And Geriatrics

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Two women face each other at a small table at the back of a café in Berkeley, California. A hot autumn sun pulses through the glass. One of the women, sturdy in a chambray shirt and large glasses, shakes her head with a false smile: "Then I just lost it."

Her friend, on the other side, slightly older, her lean left knee tucked below her chin, nods in understanding.

"Mary Beth was stuck. She had nobody to call except me," the first woman goes on. Mary Beth, I learned, was a lawyer. Her kids had needed a pick up from primary school early the day before, which would force her to cancel an important client negotiation. Her husband, an apparently high-powered something in a techie start-up, had called that morning to say he was stuck in Denver on a new deal. Mary Beth had no one to call for help except her mother, the stocky woman in big glasses who had "lost it."

"The second time this week. I love my grand kids. I love my daughter, but..." She seemed about to cry.

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Almost everyone in the café that morning was over sixty. They were equally divided between men and women. It was also playoffs week for the National League pennant, and the San Francisco Giants were one game away from the title. Nearly all the men's tables were dominated by baseball talk.

"Pretty standard," Andy Scharlach, director of UC Berkeley's Center for the Study of Aging, chuckled when I described the morning café scene. Men, whatever age, he said, usually talk sports or politics. Women talk family and relationships. That seemed like a terrible cliché until I began to raise the issue directly with several older women friends who were eager to share their exasperation concerning their post-retirement male mates. Beata -- Polish for Beatrice -- was one of the first to recount her experience.

"What puzzles me is the fact that I am surrounded by more bright people than when I was younger. So how come guys of my generation -- I'm fifty-seven -- guys that were really interesting, promising, exciting, cool guys, when I was younger become rigid, dull, not as quick thinking when they pass sixty? Their vitality is gone. Intellectual curiosity? Gone.

Conversations are all about proving you're right instead of exploring a thought, and thinking forward."

We were in a café in a university town near Cincinnati. Tarnished oak leaves had begun to pave the ground. Beata's voice echoed the sadness of the season. "When I was younger," she went on, "I was the same opinionated, strong-willed woman I am now. I never felt they treated me differently than they treat guys... I always thought I was one of them. I talk. They talk. We agree. We disagree. It was never this sense of 'we would rather you shut up.'"

Other oldr women spoke about a sort of re-infantilization of their husbands. The men no longer had had secretaries to keep track of their mail. They no longer had assistants to unravel their computer software glitches -- and more and more, the wives said, the men had taken to yelling into their telephones to vent their frustrations. Their lives were shrinking and they were growing bitter.

It's hardly news that males traditionally define themselves by their work while women rely increasing on friends and family relations. What is new in the wake of the feminist revolution is that women now are less willing to put up with the grinches. Three times as many women over 65 now sue for divorce as twenty years ago. Two key reasons are that more senior women have accumulated their own pensions -- and relative independence -- and there are many more women lawyers ready now to file divorce complaints. Yet despite mounting workplace stress the cardio-vascular diseases associated with prolonged stress still remain lower for women than for men.

What then explains the gender difference?

UC Berkeley's Andy Scharlach has spent many years examining what he calls an inherent--but not a biological -- difference in resilience between men and women as they age, a resilience, he believes, begins early, very early -- often even before boys and girls learn to read. "You become resilient by dealing with small-scale stressors that you're able to learn from," he told me. "Women suffer more exposure to the stresses that come from being excluded from the privileges that come automatically to little boys. And that continues throughout women's lives as they carry different burdens and expectations from men. Women still carry more child rearing responsibilities. They carry more of the emotional load in families. The gender biases that exist either beat you down, or you develop a sense of yourself and others as being ok." Through all that they learn early how to cope.

Susan Folkman studied coping as a Distinguished Professor of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. She focused particularly on how men and women learn to cope. "From a very early age," she told me, "boys are indoctrinated with the athletic metaphor: you don't give up. You keep going after that success. You fight for it. You don't take a second. I don't think women are brought up with that metaphor. I'm not sure what women are brought up with, but it's not the athletic metaphor." During her graduate training her research team had interviewed young men and women about how they perceive stress as either a challenge or a threat. Nearly everyone agreed about physical threats whereas for the men a "challenge" was nearly always interpreted with an athletic metaphor -- something you had to win or master or control. For the women "challenges" also had to be mastered but more importantly challenges had to be understood. "I think all that's very embedded very early in males and females," she said.

Likewise, she found, women's ability to create greater non-work related social networks s plays a role in resilience and coping, a distinction she's noticed in her own household "We talk about things that [would cause] my husband to get up and leave the table... like the nature of our relationships with our children and children-in-law. The men prefer things that are easy to speak about where everything is beautiful and perfect, but everything is not beautiful and perfect. Being able to complain about a child or an in-law, or a grandchild, is socially non-acceptable. You can't do that in public. But with your close women friends, you can just lay it out. Women in the geriatric dining room also talk about the families they grew up in. Many of the women talk about that -- the men much less so."

Then there's what gerontologists call "the widowhood effect." Men worldwide are much more likely to die in the first six months following a wife's death than are women following the loss of a husband. "Why do men have much higher mortality rates in widowhood than men," Folkman asked rhetorically? "Because we prepare for our partner's death ahead of time. On an often quite unconscious level we imagine ourselves as widows."

Janice Schwartz, another gerontologist at UCSF, has looked at gender and longevity, is even more convinced of the negative consequences of men's inability to talk intimately about their lives. "My husband and his friends do not talk," she told me. "I know more about what's going on with [my husband's] friends and their partners than he does. They talk around things. They don't ask. They don't know." Even erectile dysfunction -- the so-called "andropause" that has provoked a boom in advertising and sales for Viagra and Ciallis -- remains a silent conversation among males. "Men don't talk about it, and men don't write about it," Schwartz said, drawing on her own geriatric psychological research. "Men ask about taking testosterone when they notice their muscle mass going down."

All these questions of gender and geriatrics came back to me in my conversation with Beata outside Cincinnati, particularly how even women who are desperately poor seem to flower in their sixties just as their men seem to be shriveling. She asked me if I knew about the Red Hat Society. I did not.

"It's a movement among aging women, usually 60 or more," she explained. "It's made up of women who've decided that after a certain age they're free to do and wear what they want. So they wear purple dresses and red hats." They organize groups and have lunch together -- without men -- and talk about whatever they feel like, be it children, grand-children, naughty affairs, movies or pumpkin pie recipes. "It's like, 'we don't have to accommodate our husbands or their perception or what they want us to wear and how they want us to behave. We can put on our purple dresses and red hats and go parade around without caring a damn who sees us. It's 'look at us! We have power.'"