November 17, 2014

Aging, Living, and Dying

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

As a college professor, my students are almost always the same age—with a few outliers—but I continue to get older, which occasionally becomes more salient. Recently we screened the documentary The Central Park Five in our department, a film focusing on the attack on a jogger in 1989 and the subsequent rush to judgment that led to the wrongful imprisonment of five teen boys. The incident took place when I was a college student living in New York, and before most of the students in attendance were born. When we talked about the film, they were just as interested in hearing more about what it was actually like to be alive in the 1980s, as though I were a visitor from another era.

Admittedly, even I was struck by how old the hairstyles, clothes, and cars appeared in the documentary and I marveled at how quickly time can pass by. While focusing on the day-to-day challenges of everyday life, it’s easy to overlook the passage of big chunks of time until others point it out.

During the same week that we screened the film, actress Renee Zellweger’s face became the subject of discussion following her appearance at an event. She looked different than in the past when she frequently appeared in films as a young ingénue. “Before” and “after” images detailed the changes in her appearance; did she have plastic surgery, observers wanted to know? She responded that she knows that she looks different, that she is older and is living a different lifestyle, but did not address whether she had any cosmetic procedures.

Critics argued that women in Hollywood are expected to meet unrealistic beauty standards even as they get older, but then are criticized when they look as though they are trying to look younger. Aging, or people’s responses to aging, is often seen as a badge of shame.

You may be thinking that public scrutiny is the price celebrities pay for their fame, but age discrimination doesn’t just happen to people who work in show business.  It happens in regular workplaces as well. A Federal Reserve study found that during the Great Recession, workers 55 and older were likely to experience longer periods than unemployment than their younger counterparts, despite the likelihood that they had more work experience. Getting older often means struggling to stay relevant in a changing economy where experience might be valued less in some industries.

An ironic juxtaposition in the news should shift the way that we think about aging. Around the time that Zellweger’s face was a hot topic, the story of Brittany Maynard was headline news. Maynard was 29 and decided to end her life after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer months earlier. Images of the beautiful young woman were everywhere, as she chose to make her story public in order to champion the death with dignity cause.

She was beginning to feel the debilitating effects of the disease and along with her family, moved to Oregon to be able to receive medical assistance to access a physician’s assistance via the state’s Death with Dignity Act. As The Atlantic reported shortly after, the state has stringent requirements to receive help to end one’s life, including two doctors’ confirmation of a terminal illness, a predicted life span of six months or less, no mental health problems, and two witnesses to verify the request. Applicants must wait fifteen days between a written and oral request, and about five out six requests are denied. So despite critics who claimed she looked young and vibrant—she posted pictures of her final wishes to travel to places like the Grand Canyon—and wondered “why didn’t she just wait,” she clearly had medical verification that her condition was deteriorating rapidly. Since looking young is equated with health, it was difficult for some to grasp how ill she was at the time of her death.

Being older than 29—an age that some people facetiously claim to be for many years—suddenly felt like a blessing, one we often take for granted after passing that milestone into mid-adulthood. Perhaps at a time when the average life expectancy continues to rise we take surviving into old age for granted. What other sociological explanations do you think might explain societal reactions to aging?


" it’s easy to overlook the passage of big chunks of time until others point it out."

We've been doing a lot of "Do you remember when - we started email? Mozilla was born? when you could rent video?" where I work. And I do have trouble determining if I am "old." What does that mean in 2014? I have white hair but have had for a decade. ... What are the sociological definitions of aging in our culture? What are the indicators that matter?

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