When I was in graduate school in the mid-1970s, I felt strangely out of sync with my fellow students. Then I happened on Worlds of Pain, a groundbreaking book by Lillian Rubin about working-class life in America. Having been raised in a family with decidedly working- class values, I understood for the first time why my assumptions about what was and wasn’t meaningful were not the same as those held by my middle- to upper-class peers. Rubin looked squarely at the problems of class that divide America, and called on her readers to search for solutions. It was a call that has informed my life since.
In her 40+ year career Rubin has written twelve books. I’ve eagerly read each of them. Twenty years my senior, she is like the “aunty” I never had; an older, and much wiser woman, whose research has often provided me with fascinating insights and helpful structures for understanding a life age or stage. Women of a Certain Age is about the unique experiences of women in mid-life. Intimate Strangers explores our relationship with the other sex. Just Friends investigates and honors the role of friendship in our lives. Tangled Lives looks at the complicated dynamics between mothers and daughters as we age. In all cases, Rubin asserts her strong belief that the self and society are interwoven, each having impact on the other. Solid objective research and thoughtful personal reflection are presented with honesty and wit. In her hands, even the most complicated human issues become accessible.
Now Rubin has turned to what it means to be old. In 60 on Up: The Truth About Aging in America, she takes on our nation’s ambivalence about aging. At 82 (with a husband in his 90s), she weaves her personal experience and reflections with material from her systematic interviews of others who are grappling with the issues around aging. She speaks with her usual wry frankness about both the pluses of our new longevity and the price we pay for it. As a mere “young old” in my 60s, I found it comforting to have so many of my musings about aging defined and confirmed, even though it’s not always pretty.
Old. Rubin confronts us with our avoidance of the word and our denial of its meaning. The beliefs and attitudes of the youth culture that are so centrally American make us greet old age with dread. It’s a compliment to be told we look younger than our years – or is it? When a society not only doesn’t value but is repulsed by age, how can an individual celebrate the inevitability of getting old? However we push back at time, at some point we all decline. Eyesight and hearing falter. “Senior moments” cease being a joke. Getting about becomes more difficult. We become more dependent. We fear that we will be a burden, useless, no longer the director of our lives. What does Rubin find to counter all of this?
She doesn’t. Yes, she shows us the new possibilities brought by our increased longevity. But she also challenges us not to kid ourselves. 60 may be the new 40. 65 may seem to many to be far too young to retire. But we can’t forever avoid the changes, physical and mental, that come with age.
For many, Rubin points out, the years that medical advances have added to the average lifespan are a paradox. On the one hand, there is opportunity to continue the career, even perhaps to start another one. There is time to do things that were put off during the child-rearing years. There is more time for friendships, for experimenting with creativity, for travel.
But while we’re getting older, so are our parents. Many over-60s are now taking care of over-80 parents and wondering if they will have time while still healthy to enjoy their own older age. While we have more time for new interests or travel, we don’t necessarily have the money to indulge them. While we may have more time for friends, our friends may be dying or moving to where their children live or withdrawing from socializing. While we could start a new career, we may find that we want to draw more inward, to be more reflective, less materialistic. The long habit of pushing to the next big thing competes with the natural drawing inward that accompanies the losses of old age.
Here’s the uncomfortable truth that Rubin states again and again throughout her book: We may be living longer but we’re still getting old. Denial of that fact makes people who are feeling their age also feel inadequate. Denial of that fact gets in the way of creating social policy to address the new reality of people living longer. Denial of that fact sets us up for economic disaster unless we find alternative ways (besides Social Security and Medicare) to support those who can no longer work and care for themselves.
Rubin comes full circle. Just as she did in Worlds of Pain, she concludes by calling us to action. She reminds us that we baby boomers are the generation that once declared, “The personal is political.” In the next 20 years, 78 million of us will “enter the ranks of old age.” That’s 26 percent of the population! It’s a big and potentially powerful political voice! She admonishes us to get out of our collective denial and to take charge now by changing public policy and cultural attitudes toward aging. Good “aunty” that she is, she speaks from her advance position and tells us that our best hope is to get busy.
60 on Up: The Truth About Aging in America
Lillian B. Rubin, Ph.D.
Beacon Press, Boston: September 2007