Not over the hill
Shobhaa Dé, the bestselling novelist, columnist, and scriptwriter, is considered to be one of the most influential voices in India. She recently appeared as a guest speaker at the South Asian Literature and Art festival in Palo Alto (CA), in conversation with journalist Salil Tripathi, about her latest book Insatiable. At 76, Dé, the author of more than 25 books and a popular social commentator, is still a force to be reckoned with.
People like Dé present a view of growing old that is transformative. In an era where youth and vigor hold primacy, icons like Dé change the narrative on aging, challenging the rules of ageism to demonstrate that growing older does not mean having to compromise on one’s sense of purpose or living a productive life.
Smiler Haynes (86), a mother, actress, and community advocate still models professionally, volunteers with her church, and practices Tai Chi. She represents the “Age Strong Commission” in Boston, Massachusetts, a platform that believes that Bostonians who are 55+ make their City strong and vibrant. “I am in my prime,” Haynes concurs.
In a national poll of Americans aged 55 to 80 published in JAMA, 67% of respondents felt good about aging. The survey results, illustrated in the graph below, strongly indicate that it’s time to change the narrative about aging and how it’s understood.
For years, attitudes about ageism were shaped by notions that gray hair and growing older, for example, were indicators that the physical and cognitive abilities of older people were in decline and that it was time for them to retire and step back from active lives. At an October 2 Ethnic Media Services briefing, Dr. Louise Aronson, an expert on aging, said that ageism as defined by Robert Butler MD, in 1975, is “a process of systematic stereotyping or discrimination against people because of their age, just as racism and sexism accomplished with skin color and gender.”
Aronson, a Professor of Geriatrics at the University of California San Francisco, shared her experience of ageism at the briefing. When she let her hair go gray, she explained, it essentially rendered her invisible as a female. “It is interesting how it instantly lowers your status as a female and human being,” said Aronson.
Aging experts like Dr. Aronson are introducing new ways of understanding the many stages of growing older. Her book Elderhood about redefining aging, transforming medicine, and reimagining life, was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2020.
An introduction to Elderhood states, “Now that humans are living longer than ever before, many people alive today will be elders for 30 years or more. Yet at the very moment that most of us will spend more years in elderhood than in childhood, we’ve made old age into a disease, a condition to be dreaded, disparaged, neglected, and denied.”
Age doesn’t matter unless you’re cheese
At 76, Salman Rushdie continues to be one of the most prolific writers of our age, surviving fatwahs, hit lists, and attacks on his life. In 2023 he recovered from a horrific stabbing last year, to publish Victory City, which a review says “achieves the stature of Rushdie’s finest works and instills in readers a sense of gratitude that this author is still living and writing.”
Rushdie lives in the U.S., a nation that is graying. Projections by The Population Reference Bureau show that older Americans age 65 and older will reach 95 million by 2060, forming 17 percent to 23 percent – that means nearly 1 in 4 people will be an older person in that age group.
However, older people like Haynes and Rushdie are the exception when it comes to ‘good’ aging – because growing old comes with so many caveats.
The anticipated silver tsunami makes it imperative warns Dr. Aronson, to understand the economics of aging.
Where you are born matters
In the U.S., where you are born matters and life expectancy varies by race. “Life expectancy is declining in the U.S.,” despite 26 years of progress, said Aronson. The life expectancy decrease is disproportionately experienced by Latinos, and non-Latino black populations, because of where they live in the U.S. and the health inequities they face.
“Health disadvantages for disadvantaged populations begin at birth, and on throughout the lifespan,” she added. Life expectancy at birth can vary up to 30 years in this country, and sometimes in adjacent neighborhoods. It depends on social choices, values, priorities, and where money is invested.
“That isn’t about biology….how we talk and write about aging matters a lot to how we experience it, too.”
People who are less privileged by poverty of all different races live shorter and shorter lives while living longer is the privilege of mostly white people.
“Good aging is something inaccessible to ordinary folk” stated Aronson. When “we talk about longevity leaders, most of whom you will see are white people.’
The greatest limitations of aging come from funding priorities, imaginations, and policies, rather than our physiology, she reiterated.
Lessons from the pandemic
The impact of the pandemic was revealing said Aronson. Not only did we learn how much age mattered, because “people who were dying were disproportionately older, and the very old had much greater risks.”
Significantly, mortality rates that emerged from the pandemic data in the first year, exposed ethnic differences in COVID-19 deaths. Black Americans had a 900-fold risk of dying, with Latin X (500-fold), Native Americans (200-fold), and Asian and Pacific Islanders (150-fold), compared to non-Hispanic whites. According to Aronson, “The way we age is determined from the time we’re born.”
It’s time, urged Aronson, to better understand the lifecycles, reframe aging, and commit to creating a better future for older people across ethnicities.
The U-shaped curve of happiness
On a positive note, Aronson shared that one of the reasons people are happier as they get older, is they realize that the clock is ticking. As people near the end of their lives, it enables them to confidently prioritize what matters more – people or activities rather than money or fame. Aronson referred to a phenomenon called the U-shaped curve of happiness, that begins as people grow older, usually in their 60s.
“ So good news, we become less anxious, happier, and more satisfied with life”.