Asa Winner Callahan Asks, 'What Can They Do to Me Now?'

Article excerpt

The notion of positive aging, I would guess, goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. For our times, though, one need go back only to Frances Perkins, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor and the author of The Report of the Committee on Economic Security of 1935. As much as anyone then in the federal government, Perkins was responsible for the creation of Social Security. Her oblique reference in the report to positive aging showed a realization of the positive aspects of later life. She wrote, "Old age ... is a misfortune only if there is an insufficient income to provide for the remaining years of life."

Two decades later, Ollie Randall, who founded the National Council on Aging in 1950, and Ethel Percy Andrus, who established the American Association of Retired Persons in 1958, recognized older people's talents and contributions to the community. The Older Americans Act of 1965 was infused with the notion of elders as resources for the community, not a draining cost.


Since then, positive aging has come of age and is being legitimated in books, conferences, practice and policy. In 1981, for example, anthropologist Ashley Montagu reinforced the potential of older people in his book Growing Young (New York City: McGraw-Hill, 1983). Montagu argued that humans are designed to continue to grow, change, play and learn into old age, rather than become fossilized into Stereotypie roles. Also, scientists, such as Marian Diamond of the University of California, have proved that older adults can continue to add new brain cells, thus giving biological support to Montagu's argument.

High on the list of current literature on what's positive about later life is Gene Cohen's book The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain (New York City: Basic Books, 2005), which presented a new theory defining four phases of positive human development in older people's middle and later years.

A core idea of positive aging that Cohen and others discuss is that older individuals can find a sense of liberation once they've shucked off the demands of middle adulthood. The mantra "What can they do to me now?" captures that sense of freedom to be oneself. Although that refrain holds some truth, from my point of view, they can do quite a lot to reverse and restrain the freedom of older people.


Let me count the ways: They can confuse elders with complicated drug and health programs; they can imperil people's standard of living with medical cost shifting through denied benefits, rising insurance premiums and higher deductibles; they can impoverish older people by stealing their pensions and piling on home mortgage debt; they can abuse elders financially, physically and psychologically; they can kill or injure people with medical errors; they can cut funding for home and community-based services, thus wearing people out from family caregiving responsibilities. Moreover, they can send the job of someone's adult children overseas, not to mention jettison company health and retirement plans. No doubt, readers, you can add to this list.

Another implication of the question "What can they do to me now?" is that it raises the question "What can I do to them now?"

Again, let me count the ways: I can insist on driving when I can no longer do so safely; I can keep my scatter rugs even though I have been warned of their hazard; I can take my pal's medication because it seems to help me more than my doctor's prescription; I can cook on the gas stove wearing my loose-fitting clothing; I can speak my mind even though it hurts someone who loves me; I can ignore the costs-in time and maybe in money-I shift to my kids because of an underlying feeling that they owe me. No doubt you can add to this list as well.

If it seems that I am throwing cold water on the good idea of positive aging, I am not-but I have never been called a Pollyanna. …