Most of us know that ageism is an insidious—maybe the most pervasive––bias in American society, one that elders tend to harbor as much as youngers. “Old” is usually at least ten years older than we are, no matter how old we get.
One of the many questions to consider is how we think about aging and, thus, how we live it.
Do we deny and try to live like a 40-something? Do we retire from life in all the negative senses of the term, buying into old stereotypes? Do we realistically accept inevitable challenges while staying engaged and contributing? What models have we had for aging well? And how do we in turn wish to model positive and graceful aging, however we define it.
These are legacy questions, because modeling aging is a powerful legacy both to receive and to leave. I have had both positive and negative legacies from my grandparents, great aunt and parents. I want to share my paternal great aunt’s mostly negative legacy.
Inez Philbrick, born in 1866, was a pioneer woman doctor. She became one of the earliest women physicians to receive a hospital appointment as an intern, had a thriving practice in Lincoln, Nebraska, and became a leader of the state’s medical associations. She was also active in the women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s and corresponded with the movement’s leaders, including Susan B. Anthony, Emmeline Parkhurst and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
After her retirement sometime between age 65 and 70, at my grandparents’ urging, “Dada” left her community of friends and grateful patients and moved to an isolated spot near Dayton, Ohio where she knew no one and resented her dependence on her younger sister and brother-in-law.
By the time I knew her, she spent a lot of time sitting in her dark, cave-like bedroom-study. She grew ever more opinionated and cantankerous, but also depressed. These are things I intuited but could label only in hindsight and from later conversations with my parents. It is still hard to imagine the vital, strong, and beloved pioneer doctor and suffragette that Dada had been; growing up, I only saw the equivalent of the old gray mare put unhappily out to pasture.
In her late eighties, when I was about eleven, she took matters into her own hands and sought a way out of her restrictive existence. I remember coming to a Sunday dinner and finding her “asleep” on the bed in the sunroom––in a coma from a stroke, my parents explained. Actually, as I learned much later, Dada, a proponent of medical euthanasia, had tried to end her life by taking a large overdose of Nembutal.
To everyone’s amazement, especially hers, Dada emerged from a two-week coma alive and pretty much intact. There was one noticeable change: her irascible, opinionated, willful personality softened, as she seemed to accept that some things were beyond her control.
At age ninety-seven she even acquiesced with some grace and humor to a move with my parents and grandmother from Dayton to Riverside, California, and to the three years of nursing-home existence that followed.
Her mind remained sharp, and she seemed to get pleasure from the cards and telegrams marking her one hundredth birthday that poured in from former patients, many of whom she had ushered into the world, still grateful and admiring after more than half a century.
For most of my childhood, Dada modeled how not to age. She retired in the culturally accepted sense of retreating from the world. But after her attempt to take her own life, she also showed me how to accept the things we cannot change, how to grow unexpectedly, and what it means to retain a sharp mind almost to the end of a long life. For all these legacies I am grateful, because they have made me more conscious of how I choose to age.
How do you choose to age? What legacy will you leave?