It was formerly a terrifying view to me that I should one day be an old woman.
I now find that Nature has provided pleasure for every state.
-Mary Worley Montagu
In the ancient Western traditions dragons were often portrayed as frightening and destructive forces that the gods must battle with in the pursuit of good triumphing over evil. “Here there be dragons” is a phrase thought to be placed on maps by medieval English mapmakers depicting dangerous or unexplored territories past the edges of their known world.
The phrase might well be used to describe the unknown and “terrifying” territory of old age. Living past the age of 65 is a relativity recent phenomenon. Life expectancy for women at birth in 1900 was just 48.3 years (men = 46.3). Contrast that with one-in-five Americans being over the age of 65 by 2030 and out numbering teens two to one. Longevity, for the developed world, is the “here there be dragons” of the modern era. For World War II generation women the topography of old age is the landscape of daily life—for boomer women it’s still uncharted waters.
Do You Want to be an Old Woman?
I remember listening to the lungs of an elderly woman who was admitted for congestive heart failure (CHF). As I strategically placed my stethoscope on her chest I said: “Big breaths—Big breaths.” Her reply surprised me; in a quivering-Parkinson’s voice and a smile, she quipped: “They…use…to…be…”
This brings to mind a quote from Gypsy Rose Lee, in Barbara McDowell and Hana Umlauf, Woman’s Almanac (1977):
I’ve got everything I always had. Only it’s six inches lower.
I’ve always enjoyed telling that story because it speaks to a truth about aging. If we are fortunate enough to get old we’ll experience the physical changes which accompany age—and hopefully have a sense of humor about it.
Have you seen the ad from Kaiser Permanente: Do you want to be an old woman? This campaign is bold and brilliant in that it flies in the face of conventional wisdom in several important ways:
1) Marketers will tell you to shy away from using terms like “old” or “aging” when selling to boomers and beyond.
2) The traditional medical model has emphasized “sick-care” not “health-care.”
This ad turns conventional wisdom on its head and has the audacity of hope (thanks Mr. President) to ask the question straight out: Do you want to be an old woman? It’s NOT about anti-aging—in fact it’s just the opposite. Emphasizing prevention (get a mammogram) so you can live long enough to BECOME AN OLD WOMAN and experience all the unknown experiences (territories) awaiting you.
This is about “compressing morbidity” and extending health—not just extending life. And the message is delivered with the soulful sound-track of Michelle Shocked – When I Grow Up. This ad demonstrates a deeper understanding of human behavior and respects the maturing psyches of women who are living fully within their age.
When running marathons with Mavis Lindgren, I often overheard her say: “I’m having fun being an old lady,” and she meant it. Perhaps out in the uncharted edge waters of old age she had encountered a different kind of dragon, of the Asian tradition, that often symbolize power, happiness, good fortune and wealth—and had a message for those of us still waiting back on the shore…That there is pleasure at every state.
Compression of Morbidity – The Benefits to Society and the Keys to Attainment
Government longevity data
When I Grow up I Want to be an Old Woman video no longer available by MS
(photo Christopher Walker)