Valuing Old Age without Leveraging Ableism

By Berridge, Clara W.; Martinson, Marty | Generations, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Valuing Old Age without Leveraging Ableism


Berridge, Clara W., Martinson, Marty, Generations


Several years ago, while working in a senior housing co-op development, one of us (Berge) witnessed a troubling conversation between several residents in a high-end Midwest cooperative. The older adults discussed their desire to keep people who used wheelchairs from playing cards near the sunny lobby windows, where they would be visible to passersby. On another occasion, having heard from residentmembers that they had downsized and moved into the co-op because they wanted to age in place there, Berridge asked the architect why there were no universal design features-or at least grab bars-in any of the newly built bathrooms. The architect explained that the units would sell better this way. Some of the residents and architect apparently shared a concern that outsiders would see the co-op as a place for old and disabled people-an image they wanted to avoid.

Anthropologists Lamb, Robbins-Ruszkowski, and Corwin (2017) shared a similar story from Lamb's research involving a Boston retirement home where residents considered banning wheelchairs in the main dining hall. One resident who supported the ban explained that seeing the wheelchairs disturbed her because, "I don't like the intermingling of the well and the sick."

Such examples of elders distancing themselves from and judging other elders who are disabled or ill are not surprising in the United States, where we often define and uplift the healthy older adult as one who is not disabled and is active, productive, and "not looking her age." Phrases such as "70 is the new 50" reflect a "positive aging" discourse, which suggests that the preferred way of being old is to not be old at all, but rather to maintain some image of middle-age functionality and appearance.

We can celebrate the fact that baby boomers will "do old age" in many different ways than those who came before them. It is not unusual for each new aging cohort to redefine old age from that of previous generations to fit with con-*ABSTRACT temporary times. Like generative notions of gender performance (Butler, 1990), age is and can be performed in ways that hold liberating potential for older women to counter monolithic images of this life stage and break out of expected ways of being. These diverse, norm-defying ways of being old may challenge aging models put forth by gerontologists; or, as we describe here, they may fall in line with these models of aging in less liberating ways.

Successful aging has become the most prominent of several popular "positive aging" models (e.g., active aging, productive aging) developed by gerontologists in rejection of previous characterizations of aging that forecasted imminent decline and loss. In 1987, Rowe and Kahn first introduced a new distinction between "usual" aging and "successful" aging; a decade later, their refined model defined successful aging through three hierarchical components: first, avoidance of disease and disability, followed by maintenance of cognitive and physical function, which should enable social engagement (Rowe and Kahn, 1997).

Social gerontologists and other scholars have long noted the limitations of these binary models of positive aging, which imply that "negative" aging exists outside these parameters. In this article, we build upon two and a half decades of compelling critiques of successful aging by diving into one particular aspect: successful aging's ableism, as enacted in its privileging of the avoidance of disease, disability, and functional decline through the label of success. We define ableism as discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities, based on assumptions of inferiority, abnormality, or diminished humanity, rather than understanding disability as a dimension of difference or another way for a body and mind to be.

We highlight the perspectives of several feminist and disability scholars and activists whose work on social models of disability has challenged our thinking and offered us a generative lens on aging. …

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