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Our Later Years

The New Old Age

Historically, most people did not have an extended old age; for many of us, our life spans will extend decades beyond those of previous generations. Consider that between 1900 and 2007, life expectancy at birth3 increased from forty-eight to eighty years for women (closer to eighty-one for white women and seventy-seven for black women; life expectancy varies by race, but the difference decreases with age). Life expectancy at older ages has also increased: Between 1950 and 2007, life expectancy at age sixty-five rose from fifteen to twenty years for women.

By the year 2030, when all baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are at least age sixty-five, nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population will be sixty-five or older, up from 13 percent in 20104 and just 4 percent in 1900.

It is up to us to change the aging paradigm— to create purposeful roles for ourselves and positive role models of aging and elderhood for younger people—and to question how our communities can best address the complexities that accompany growing older.

Many of us are asking: How can we balance affirming the positive aspects of aging with recognizing the problematic realities without giving in to age bias? How can we tap into the vast knowledge and insights of women about the aging process and end the potentially oppressive effects of imposed cultural constructs? How can we address health care gaps, which include inequities in care and health disparities, and advocate for changes in policies, institutions, and programs so that everyone can experience better health and improved quality of life?

The road map for navigating these issues isn’t always clear. What is certain, however, is that we are a growing force, and our influence can’t be ignored. Our numbers will give us extra clout as voters and activists in our communities—clout we can use to press for social policies that im-prove the lives of all women, so that what some call the bonus years are experienced more universally.

Aging Has Become Feminized

Although we are living longer than ever before, the quality of our lives as we age depends on many factors: our health, the losses we have suffered, our finances and living arrangements, our family situation and networks of support, and how well we adapt to new changes and, perhaps, new limitations.

Statistically speaking, the problems of aging are predominantly women’s problems. In 2008, women accounted for 58 percent of the population age sixty-five and older and for 67 percent of the population eighty-five and older.5 We have the benefits—and the potential disadvantages— of living longer. Though we’d like to think we’ll all have longer life/health spans, most of us will experience some loss, illness, and increased dependency on others, perhaps as we’re still considered caregivers ourselves. We need to incorporate this reality into our view of aging and find ways to plan for and cope with these challenges.

Financial concerns especially add to the stresses of daily living. Among women age sixtyfive and older, 12 percent are living in poverty.6 For married women, the number is much less, around 4 percent. Unmarried older women have considerably less income and a lower standard of living than do married women. For women living alone, the poverty rate jumps to 20 percent overall and varies greatly by race: 16 percent of white women, compared with 39 percent of black women, 33 percent of Asian women, and almost 40 percent of Hispanic women.

Our Bodies in Context

Some cultures value and honor older people. Generally speaking, U.S. society is ageist; that is, it idealizes the young and marginalizes and segregates older adults. Ironically, ageism is a form of bigotry unlike any other; most of us will fall victim to it sooner or later.

Many of us have felt discriminated against on the basis of age, sometimes from midlife on at work, in relationships, in media representations, and even in medical care. Women are still valued mostly for their reproductive and sexual capacity and are often held to impossible standards of youth and physical attractiveness. This makes us vulnerable to age discrimination at an earlier age than men. Ageism is bad for everyone—but especially for women.

A sixty-three-year-old woman describes her frustration with the limitations of the commonly used phrase “postmenopausal women”:

I think the term is far too narrow. It defines us by the lack of blood dripping out of our vaginas every month, by our lack of reproductive ability. My 20-something feminist self in the mid-1960s would be appalled at the label; my 60-something self looks at the term quizzically and becomes equally appalled. The time from our early fifties until death, “the postmenopausal years,” may span thirty to fifty years. For many women, they may be some of our most productive and fulfilled years. For me, my life has not stopped getting better. But this time in my life needs a different label from “postmenopausal” that describes its richness and breadth. Years of maturity, years of more harmony, years of moving beyond? While my body may not able to do all that it once could, my life is a tremendous adventure—not waning.

Though the term “postmenopausal” may be useful in a biological or life context, some women advocate doing away entirely with biologically based terms to describe older women. After all, “postandropausal” is not a term used for men.

Advertisements play on and exaggerate ourfears and anxieties about the natural changes in our bodies as we age. Businesses—especially the pharmaceutical, plastic surgery, and cosmetic industries—exploit and profit from these attitudes. Meanwhile, we are more likely to be put down for things that are admired or ignored in older men, such as pride in our achievements or having wrinkles on our faces or extra weight on our bones. The bottom line is that all of us are growing older and all our lives are touched by aging, but society in many ways doesn’t accommodate or value the needs and perspective of older women.

Aging itself is often seen as a condition that we have to do something about—giving rise to the phrase “medicalization of aging.” The natural changes in our bodies associated with growing older become defined as diseases or conditions that always (rather than sometimes) need medical supervision or intervention, including drugs or surgery. Self-acceptance as we age can be hard-won but invaluable.

A popular newspaper column by Shirley Haynes has made many rounds via email. In response to a young person asking how she feels about being old, Haynes wrote, “I was taken aback, for I do not think of myself as old.” Then she thought about it some more:

I would never trade my amazing friends, my wonderful life, and my loving family for less gray hair or a flatter belly. As I’ve aged, I’ve become kinder to myself, and less critical of myself. I’ve become my own friend. . . . I will walk the beach in a swim suit that is stretched over a bulging body, and will dive into the waves with abandon if I choose to, despite the pitying glances from the bikini set. They, too, will get old (if they’re lucky). . . . So, to answer the question, I like being older. It has set me free. I like the person I have become.7

Excerpted from the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. © 2011, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.


3. National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2009: With Special Feature on Medical Technology, January 2010, cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus09.pdf.

4. National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2008, With Special Feature on the Health of Young Adults, March 2009, p. 203, cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus08.pdf#026.

5. Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, Older Americans 2010: Key Indicators of Well-Being. July 2010, www.agingstats.gov/agingstatsdotnet/Main_Site/Data/2010_Documents/Docs/OA_2010.pdf.

6. Ibid.

7. Shirley Haynes, “Odds N Ends,” McKenzie River Reflections, April 26, 2007, bit.ly/ecyDiH.


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