Abigail Trafford - Author, Journalist and Public Speaker


Still Trivialized After All These Years

by Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, November 1, 2005

And the winners are . . . Mogul Martha and Speedy Paul! They are recipients of Time magazine's "Aging Gracefully Award." Martha Stewart is "back on the front line of domesticity" and gorgeous actor/race-car driver Paul Newman "lives at top speed," gushed the magazine.

More than 40,000 people voted online to select the two top agers among 10 celebrity candidates who are "on the far side of 60" and are "making the most of their age," explained the magazine.

But you wouldn't know how these stars are making the most of their later decades from the way they are portrayed in Time. Aging gracefully in this contest is defined as hanging on to former status and glory. Candidates are hailed for how they seem to defy the aging process and live -- still! -- like their younger selves.

Three of the five female contenders are extolled for continuing to exist as they did before. Toni Morrison, 74, "continues to write novels," points out Time. Folk singer Joan Baez, 64, "continues to tour." Lauren Bacall, 81, "continues her prizewinning acting."

Well, why wouldn't talented people continue to be talented on the far side of 60? It is ageist mystique that decline is inevitable after a certain age. Absent disease and injury, the brain can grow and regenerate as it ages, according to the most recent neurological research. Creativity, like good wine, gets better with age, points out Washington aging expert Gene D. Cohen in his book "The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life" (Harper Paperbacks) .

Also problematic is the adverb "still" in describing older people. Time notes that Sandra Day O'Connor, 75, after 24 years as a Supreme Court justice, "still loves to golf." As though it were inevitable after a certain age to stop loving golf! Again, unless a person has a disease or injury that makes it impossible to play golf, why would a person stop loving the sport? Even with some arthritis in the knees or a hip replacement, men and women can play golf or pursue other sports and have a good time.

The word "still" condescendingly suggests it is amazing that anyone so old could do what younger people can do. As in: He's 80 and still goes to the office. Or: That couple in their seventies -- they are still holding hands (and having sex). When the Rolling Stones recently came to town, The Post used the word several times to praise their performance --"Still Rocking," exuded the headline. Keith Richards at 61 has "still got what it takes." The band is described in The Post as a beloved dinosaur of rock that "can still kick out the jams," said The Post.

The Stones are a dynamic group. O'Connor is a dynamic woman. They don't need to be defined as still dynamic, which subtly marginalizes them as kinda cute and freaky. They deserve more respect. When the leading edge of the baby boom turns 60 in January, what will the headline be? Sixty and still breathing?

There is valor in breathing -- and in continuing to write novels or run businesses or serve in the government. There's also unprecedented opportunity to start writing novels or forming a business or running for office. With longevity and better health, most people on the far side of 60 can lead very productive lives.

For many, the challenge is to craft a legacy of values and experience to pass on to future generations. This sense of stewardship distinguishes the old from the young. Men and women may have the same career, the same hobbies and the same spouse at 60 as they had at 30, but (hopefully) they have changed and grown along the way and are ready to apply their talents in work and in love to their next Hurrah.

The trouble with the Time contest is that it fails to illustrate the potential of the next Hurrah. Investment guru Warren Buffett, 75, is hailed for buying utility stocks before the recent surge in energy prices. Why should this be remarkable? Buffett is a smart investor!

More worthy of recognition would be how he is passing on his values, his passions, his wisdom. What new avenues in his life is he exploring? Where does he think he will be at 85? At 95?

Time's aging contest is really an incarnation of the traditional beauty contest. The two winners stand out because they are the most glamorous in their photographs. Paul Newman, 80, is the prototype Gorgeous Older Man, with his square jaw and confident demeanor -- what every woman wants in a father, lover or tax accountant. Martha Stewart, 64, is the blondest of the female contestants and the cutest -- a perennial cheerleader with a whitened-teeth smile.

But in real life, aging gracefully is more than just a pretty face.

To comment on this column, send e-mail to trafforda@washpost.com.
© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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