Creative Aging Expert

July 2010

In This Issue


Another Great Age Pioneer Dies

Dr. Robert N. Butler, one of the heroes of the aging movement, died recently at age 83. He founded the first Geriatrics Department in the U.S. at Mt. Sinai Medical School. A psychiatrist by training, he was the first director of the National Institute on Aging. Butler received a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his book, Why Survive? Being Old In America. He is credited with coining the term "ageism" in 1968 to describe discrimination against the elderly. His book Sex After 60, written in conjunction with his wife, Myrna I. Lewis, became the nation's best selling large print book. In 1990 he founded the International Longevity Center (ILC) and became its president and CEO. A frequent keynote speaker at aging conferences, he will be sorely missed. I read many of the publications from ILC in preparation for my presentations on creative aging. I particularly referred to the 2007 publication Ageism in America. His newest book, just off the press, is The Longevity Prescription. With the passing of both Dr. Butler and Dr. Gene Cohen, we have lost two giants in the field of gerontology.

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Granny D: A Soldier in the Field

In 1999, Granny D — at the age of 89 — walked 3,200 miles from California to Washington, D.C, in support of campaign finance reform. Undaunted when snow fell, she put on her cross country skis and kept going! Along the way she was interviewed by The New York Times, among other major newspapers, and helped to keep this important issue in the headlines. While protesting in Washington she was jailed. Granny D died at her home in Dublin, N.H., in March of this year. She was 100 years old. Read about the experiences of this courageous woman in Granny D: Walking Across America in My Ninetieth Year (2001) or Granny D: You're Never too Old to Raise a Little Hell (2003).

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Conscious Aging

Books written about successful aging focus on health promotion and activity; those describing productive aging emphasize contributions older people can make through paid employment or volunteer roles. Both successful aging and productive aging build on strengths not weaknesses. Dr. Harry Moody points out that there is more to life than success and productivity in "A New Image of Old," a piece he wrote while at the International Longevity Center.

"One of the virtues of age," he says, "is to teach us how to value other things in life: such as wisdom, artistic creativity, spiritual growth, and leaving a legacy to future generations. There comes a time when many people realize that 'keeping busy' simply isn't enough. That moment, whether it comes in midlife or old age, is the moment I describe as 'the Call:' an invitation to become the person we were meant to be, to live our lives in a deeper way. That shift is often called 'Conscious Aging,' and books by Zalman Schachter (From Age-ing to Sage-ing) and Sixties guru Ram Dass (Still Here) help point the way."

Moody continues, "Conscious aging doesn't mean rejecting health or productivity, but it means pursuing other values as well. Carl Jung said it best seventy years ago in his little essay The Stages of Life when he remarked, 'A human being would not live to be sixty or seventy years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of life must have a significance of its own and not be merely a pitiful appendage to life's morning.' Instead, we need to step back and take the risk of Conscious Aging, of accepting the last stage as part of the whole of life, not trying to recreate it in the image of perpetual youth."

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The Trouble with Successful Aging

In this article from the October/November 1998 issue of the Park Ridge Center Quarterly, Drew Leader talks about "spiritual aging" as opposed to "successful aging." He points out that "in the prime of life we're so absorbed by earning money, advancing careers, and raising children that we've no time for anything else. Nor need we turn our thoughts toward an afterlife. In youth it seems we'll live forever."

"'Successful aging,' according to our Western model involves combating such losses as best we can. The model of 'spiritual aging' involves embracing them as a curriculum for the soul. Age challenges us to see beyond the ego-self, now falling into disrepair. Who am I, if not just this wrinkled face in the mirror? If not just 'mom,' now that the children are grown up? If not the 'Vice-President of Finance,' now that I'm semi-retired? What is the true self that transcends all these limited models? Is there something infinite and eternal reaching even beyond the grave? According to the spiritual model, truly successful aging involves confronting such questions head on."

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Gloria Steinem

I have just finished reading The Education of a Woman, a biography of Gloria Steinem by Carolyn Heilbrun, a feminist who taught in the English department at Columbia University for many years before quitting to protest the "good old boy network." She has written several books on woman's subjects and is thorough and scholarly in her approach. I found her take on the women's rights icon most interesting, and it inspired me to want to read works written by Steinem. So I just finished Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, and am now into Moving Beyond Words. Next on my list, Revolution From Within. Steinem's most recent book on aging, Doing Sixty and Seventy, can be ordered from Elder Academy Press.

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Asking the Right Question

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Statements About Aging

In my fit of reorganizing my office I came upon some really interesting statements about age. I have included a few below.

Carolyn Heilbrun's address to Smith College, 1990.

"Old is a dirty word in our language. If I even say I am old, outrage is heard from all corners. 'You are not old,' they say. 'You are vigorous, powerful, doing wonderful things, affecting events.' 'Exactly, ' I want to answer. And I am, thank God, no longer young. 'But you don't really look your age,' they argue. 'Yes I do,' I say....But I cannot redeem the word old...so we speak of midlife...This is the span I want to recover for women, the extended moment that can become a new rite of passage, a new initiation...

One Knows, As No Young Person Ever Does, That She Will Die And That Life Must Be Lived Now....There is a new, overwhelming pleasure in being alone...together with...the need for one's own space... There is no longer time for meaningless conversations, for social events where time merely passes, where obligations no longer important are merely fulfilled.

One Leaves One's Space To Take Part In Something That, If Ever So Slightly Changes The World...So when someone tries to compliment us who have been initiated into this special time of life by telling us we look young, we must say, "'No, not young, I am an older woman with pizzazz, which is not the same thing.'"

Betty Friedan, The Fountain of Age.

"What happens if you're lucky when you get older — you get rid of all the things that aren't important and do the work and spend the time with your friends that you're really interested in. This new sense of adventure that age may force or free us to can lighten us of unnecessary weight and burdens we've dragged too long...How strange not to even worry about them any more...How freeing, not to even feel these old conflicts about success or failure, work or love.

And if that lightens us, lights our path...in this third age we're entering now, that lonely liberating lightness may be a serious sign...a signpost for survival. A Signpost Of Evolution. For if so many of us are experiencing it now...it can't be just personal. The adventure we are free now to choose in age...may begin with travel or study, but it ultimately involves new ways of work, and new ways of love, that are important not only for our personal survival but also for society, as if, In Our Third Age, Which Is New For The Human Race, We're Previewing New Possibilities For Society As A Whole."

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Make It Happen on the Move

Next week my friend Barbara and I are off to camp on Bumpkin Island, one of the Boston Harbor Islands — a National Park Area. We will be able to gaze out from our tents at the Boston skyline. There are ranger-led programs on each island and trails to hike and beaches for swimming. This has been on my wish list for a long time. I am excited about finding a friend willing to share the experience. After that it's off to visit high school friends in Rochester, N.Y., then on to First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach to camp, swim in the ocean, walk, read books, and soak up the sun for my 79th birthday. In October I will keynote the Tennessee State Conference on Aging and offer two workshops. Then it's off to the Southwest Coastal Trail in England for three weeks of hiking.

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