Mom’s doom-and-gloom warnings about growing old began in my teens. “Look, look at how the skin on my hand no longer bounces back,” she said, demonstrating with a tiny pinch. I now wear a silver ring she gifted me. Mom passed it on with a comment that could tarnish it if I let it. “Wear it now, before your hands get old.”
By the time I hit 45, Mom was 70. Several times I’d caught her muttering at herself in the mirror. “Ugly old woman”—she’d say disgustedly. I’m not making this up. In imitation of her own mother she later confessed.
I still feel shock at realizing how our culture warped my mom’s view of herself. In her 70s she was a strong, handsome woman who drew people in with her curiosity. And she learned late in life, ill and in assisted living—she not only enjoyed her days, but captured the love of adoring new friends—of all ages.
Where did my mom learn to loathe her own aging body? It’s ageism that creates the pictures of ugliness and hopelessness around normal aging, writes activist Ashton Applewhite. Ageism blinds us to what we gain as we grow old. We’re steeped in images of sick, sad, grumpy, and forgetful from the time we’re tots.
I’ve learned that negative stereotypes bombard us—setting the stage for how we feel about ourselves as we age. We take them in from many sources, apply them to others, and eventually must apply them to ourselves.
I’ve also learned of vital aging from amazing older role models leading the way—like Vital Aging Network cofounder Jan Hively (M.A. ’77, Ph.D. ’01). And somewhere between Mom’s dire warnings and my own aging past midlife, I’ve learned to see the beauty of older bodies, and also the steel within.
- Lindsey McDivitt (B.S. ’84), Ann Arbor, Michigan