Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

New Take on What Defines Old Age People in 70s and Older Can't Be Pigeon-Holed

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

New Take on What Defines Old Age People in 70s and Older Can't Be Pigeon-Holed

Article excerpt

WHAT is it that makes us cheer for a 97-year-old former Olympic athlete who skips to the stage at the Olympics, but then joke about the age of a fit 73-year-old who runs for president?

It's OK to be old - we'll cheer the stamina and spirit of an older person if he's a good show on the sidelines, but not if his performance is critical to us.

Bob Dole turned 73 in late July. For a photo opportunity, he could have done better than to visit that senior citizens home in Washington, D.C. Passively seated at a group meal, he looked more suited for residency there than at the White House.

Photos that subtly editorialize against his age, and the daily gruel of jokes about Dole that pass regularly through our homes and workplaces and through the monologues of Leno and Letterman, are not only ageist, but they skirt the real questions:

Is 73 too old to be president?

More to the point: When is one old?

If you answer "Depends" and laugh at your own joke, ask yourself these questions: When will I get the "old" label? And how will I want to be treated at that point in my life - dismissed as over-the-hill, even when you feel healthy and believe you have a lot more time ahead of you to make a contribution?

Dole may be behind the times in some areas - don't ask him questions about pop culture - but he is at the forefront of a new longer-living society that is breaking the pattern of 60-something retirement and 70-something old age.

Age is more about health than birthdays. At 75, you can be an invalid or you can be doing triathlons.

Individual differences increase with age, says James Birren, 78, associate director of the UCLA Center on Aging, and a pioneer gerontologist who has devoted his career to the research of aging. At age 19, people are much more alike than at 70, because of the accumulated impacts of life experiences, genetic traits and personality.

Would we want an 84- or 94-year-old president? Probably not, because the probabilities are high that person wouldn't be able to complete a term in office without disability or death. But that period between 70 and 80 are vital years for many, says Birren.

One of the most respected long-term studies of people in their 70s and older provides compelling documentation of the lengthening of adult prime time. Since 1971, one of Birren's 70-something colleagues, Swedish geriatrician Alvar Svanborg, a professor of geriatrics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been studying groups of older people at five-year intervals, employing medical, biological and psychological tests. He has found that the period of severe illness and frailty at the end of life is occurring increasingly later in life. Intelligence and memory can remain virtually unchanged in healthy people well into their 70s and 80s.

But culturally we are experiencing lag time. …

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