The joy of aging: It's easy for her to say

BOOK REVIEW

September 13, 1993|By Gerri Kobren | Gerri Kobren,Staff Writer

When Betty Friedan turned 60, her friends threw her a surprise party. She was horrified; their gesture, she thought, was an announcement that she was old, used up, useless.

That's in the first paragraph of the first chapter of "The Fountain of Age," and right there is where Ms. Friedan lost me. After all, an unlined face and girlish figure have never been her stock in trade. In fact, in her first book, "The Feminine Mystique," this mother of the women's movement helped us understand, about 30 years ago, that women were more than the sum of their pretty parts and roles as sex object, wife and mother.

So if Betty Friedan was bummed out by turning into an older American, what hope was there for the rest of us?

Actually, for those with good health, outgoing personalities, boundless self-confidence and a lot of money, Ms. Friedan found quite a lot of good life out there on the other side of 60. Rebounding from the traumatic birthday party, she spent 10 years seeking the "fountain of age," with all the zeal of a young -- and very well-financed -- explorer, in continent-hopping conferences, seminars and interviews.

Buoyed by her discoveries of productive and pleasurable elder living, she had a blast five years later, at her 65th birthday bash; she danced the night away under the strobes in a New York disco.

Now, just as she debunked the mystique that defined and limited women all those years ago, the 70-ish author takes aim at the "age mystique," which defines the later years as a time of decline and disability.

Some of the jolly older folk found on her more recent quest were, to be fair about the economics of it, residents of a trailer park. Most of the others were well-heeled world travelers, creative types, the sort who could pick themselves up and move to different parts of the country and revivify small towns and coordinate local programs and find the new place inside themselves where they're glad to be, wrinkles and all.

When Ms. Friedan was 65, she went on an Outward Bound adventure for people 55 and older. She found she had not only the courage to do it, but also the maturity to know when the task was too great -- and to insist that someone get her off the side of the cliff.

By comparison, the droopy old folk she encountered were the kind who were so afraid of disability that they signed on in retirement communities, isolated among their age mates, playing grown-up games with no real purpose, their autonomy abdicated and their governance taken over by the housing corporation.

Worse yet for the vital human spirit were nursing homes: Why, Ms. Friedan's own mother, 90 and ailing, simply died when the family put her in one.

And senility, she opines, is less often organic, more often the result of boredom, helplessness, loss of control. She found studies showing that old people who direct themselves in

purposeful work are happiest, healthiest, longest-lived; work, therefore, must be keeping them vital: If you want to see old age in action, just look at the U.S. Supreme Court.

So what we need, Ms. Friedan writes, is a "paradigm shift" in which older people are seen as vital, active, wise and sensual -- although not in the power-thrust paradigm of macho youth. Gerontology conferences that focus on incontinence, Alzheimer's disease and nursing homes are beside the point. Researchers should be studying nutrition and exercise and ways of keeping old people active and involved, she says.

That's not the same as saying that seniors are in the same place as juniors; we may be less agile, mentally as well as physically, but we're also more experienced, more holistic in our thinking, more impatient with irrelevance. We've got different life work. Some of us are caught up in the futility of age denial (that's the face-lift crowd) when what we should be doing is redefining success in terms of expanding our horizons -- seizing the day, finding a way to live right up to the last minute so that we die while doing rather than while lying in an ICU.

"The Fountain of Age" -- on second thought, a peculiar title; the fountain of youth was a fantasy, wasn't it? -- suffers greatly from its method. Ms. Friedan's 10 years of research have left her quoting studies long past, making 1993 arguments against data from the '70s and early '80s and sometimes raising battle flags for causes already fought.

Despite the first-person narrative, the style is often academic and sometimes smug, as if the chronic illnesses and infirmities of age are the lifestyle consequences of the inactive, rather than the other way around. Ms. Friedan's friend, Ida, at 80, put a plastic dome over her pool so the winter weather would not keep her from nude swimming; Nell, in her 70s, went off on a wine-tasting tour of Europe with her new husband and a broken neck, despite doctors' warnings that a fall could leave her quadriplegic. The implication seems clear enough: What are the rest of us bellyaching about?

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