Learning to Be Old Author Takes Hard Look at Myths of Aging

Article excerpt



Following is an excerpt from Learning to be Old: Gender, Culture and Aging, (Lanham, Md.: Roman and Littlefield, 2003), the new book by author and essayist Margaret "Peg" Cruikshank, who teaches women's studies at the University of Maine, where she is a faculty associate of the Center on Aging. This article is adapted with permission.

Learning to be old means knowing that the way you age depends on where you live. In the mountains of Peru, you may be expected to do hard physical labor in your 8os. In Japan, your children may house you from a sense of filial duty but wish you could live alone. As an elderly woman in the Chagga tribe of Mount Kilimanjaro, you have the right to pick a grandchild to live with you and help with daily chores, a custom also practiced by some Navajo in the American Southwest. In many societies, the tasks of childcare and food preparation fully integrate elders into their group. Infirmity may lower one's status, but for those who live in Vatican City and wear a red hat, their power will draw attention away from their infirmities.

The commonplace belief that the old are devalued here in the United States and venerated in other societies is oversimplified. In nonindustrial societies, treatment of the old depends on many factors. Professed attitudes of regard for the old do not necessarily reflect actual treatment. Nevertheless, the high status afforded some of the old in many cultures past and present sharply contrasts with the relatively low status of the old in the United States today.


A key to mindful aging is being able to think critically about the culturally determined place to which one is assigned, so that each person can challenge discriminatory attitudes and questionable assumptions, quietly within themselves if not in spoken words. When a person receives a chirpy letter from AARP at age 50, or a Medicare card at 65, no insert states that long-held cultural myths strongly influence the ways we age in the United States.

One of the most obvious and pervasive American myths is self-reliance, expressed by the phrase "rugged individualism." Is this myth useful for old age, or should it be discarded or at least reconsidered? The people best able to embody the extreme individualism of culture in the United States are the young and strong. The middle-aged can do fairly well, but the old are bound to fail if this is a measure for judging them.

To be sure, some old women and men have the physical and psychic energy to be as self-reliant and autonomous as anyone else. More often, to be old-at least to be over 80-means needing some help; it means acknowledging that total independence is no longer possible. In the United States, this recognition often brings anguish and humiliation. In other cultures, where interconnectedness is lifelong and often necessary for survival, dependency in old age is not so radically different from dependency during other life stages.

The cultural myth of self-reliance suggests pushing against barriers and obstacles, prevailing with dogged perseverance and left-brain logic. It connotes competition, action and freedom in separation. Self-reliance appears to be a maleskewed model, for women are often depicted in relation to others, whether by choice or by conventional expectation. Women, like people with low incomes, disabilities, or those who are in ethnic or racial groups, also may lack the control over their life circumstances that is often a precondition for self-reliance.

Despite these inherent limitations, self-reliance is commonly urged upon the old, as if they were a monolithic group. Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance," published in 1841, is a classic text on this American virtue. For Emerson, however, the phrase did not suggest the ability to take care of oneself without depending on others: The focus of the essay is independent thinking. Emerson expressed transcendental faith in the individual's inner light, praising nonconformity. …