“All I know is it changes me, just seeing that there can be changes in later life, that the possibility of change, of creating and re-creating your life is never ending. It has nothing to do with age.”
Betty Friedan’s The Fountain of Age is an important, wise, inspiring book, first published in 1993. It’s wide-ranging, well-researched and packed with stories and data. It is also 654 pages long.
I’ve read it so you don’t have to!
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique helped kick-start the second wave of feminism in the 1960s, and called for women to be able to fulfil their whole potential. The Fountain of Age could have been as important in calling for older people to fulfil their potential, but is not nearly as well-known. Certainly it has sat unread on my bookshelf for 20 years. It wasn’t just extremely long, it was about old people! I was far too youthful to care.
Now, not that far off turning sixty, I am inspired by Friedan’s personal journey from denying and dreading age, to acceptance, affirmation and celebration.
The book is certainly comprehensive, including discussions on
- work and retirement
- health and nursing care
- men and women
- adventure and learning for older people
- relationships, friendships and intimacy
- attitudes to elderly people
20 years of progress?
First published 20 years ago, its statistics about ageing and society mainly in the USA need updating.* And both medical knowledge and understanding of older people’s needs have advanced since then:
- We have more understanding of the plasticity of the brain and how people continue to learn and grow in later life
- Good care homes put more emphasis on stimulating residents and being less institutional
- New laws (in the UK at least) have tackled ageism in the workplace
Yet many of the problems The Fountain of Age identifies are familiar today. Coverage of elderly people in the media emphasises both their plight – frail, sick, confused, lonely, poor – and how much they cost the rest of us, either because they’re so needy or because they’re “greedy geezers”.
The “plight” stories are real, and Friedan reflects them. She recognises the impact on older people of poor health including dementia. But as she points out, the vast majority of over 65s live independently, and mental and physical frailty are NOT inevitable for our later years.
Perceptions of ageing
In a culture which sees old age so negatively, it’s natural to dread, deny and defy ageing for as long as we can. Women in particular are bombarded with messages about passing for younger. There are too few portrayals of the positive aspects and even advantages of ageing.
While the media love stories of elderly people being plucky or achieving things despite their great age, the focus on them as extra-ordinary reinforces the stereotype. Friedan ponders our “strange reluctance to really look at that strong face of age … our failure to imagine new powers of creativity; our holding on to that dread view of age as solely a decline from youth, no matter what the evidence of another possibility’.
“As long as we do ‘pass’ for young, the increasing millions of us who are, in fact, moving vitally through our later years will not alter people’s negative image of age.”
So what are Friedan’s conclusions? For me, five key themes stand out.
1. Age is a new and unique stage in our development
Old age can be experienced as another stage in the evolution of personal or spiritual development, a coming into a new place, a new period of life to define for ourselves. This is NOT a rarity, but a genuine possibility for many of us.
Friedan acknowledges that the many interviews spread throughout the book are not a scientific sample, but she had no trouble finding people who continued to evolve in their sixties, seventies and even eighties. As well as in cities and suburbs, she found them in nursing homes or retirement villages where people are not expected to continue to grow and control their lives.
The everyday world of many older people generates intellectual decline, yet “for most normal elderly people there is … great reserve capacity and potential for new learning and growth … If provided with cognitive enrichment and practice, most … are capable of remarkable gains and peaks of intellectual performance”. (quoting P Baltes and R Kleige)
This is vital for younger people to understand. As a 37 year-old says of her work with older people,
2. Old people are not a special interest group
As a feminist, Friedan insisted that the “personal is political”, and she emphasises wider political dimensions here too. Yes, it is important for older people personally to learn and grow in later life. But it is in everyone’s interests for them to age in relatively good health, independently, in their own communities, with ‘purposeful days and loving bonds’. For this to happen, welfare, health care, transport, housing and education must to be geared to them.
And, she insists in her heartfelt closing chapters, old people should not be a special interest group who empower themselves only for their own security and care. Instead, they should be using their energy and generativity alongside middle and young generations to tackle problems in society and to shape the future in positive ways for the human community as a whole.
“If we face now the reality, at sixty-five or seventy, seventy-five, eighty, ninety, that we will indeed , sooner or later, die, then the only big question is how are we going to live the years we have left, however many or few they may be?”
3. Old people are not defined by their problems
“An older person’s ability to manage everyday routines cannot be determined confidently from the names of the diseases he or she may have or from the length of the problem list” (Dr Mark Williams, quoted FoA p.386)
Friedan draws attention to the way older people’s problems are medicalized, so that the first treatment offered tends to be drugs rather than activity, therapy, or help with improving function. Some of these concerns apply particularly to the context of healthcare in the US, but I suspect this is a major issue in the UK too.
What matters is helping people to function better with what they have, and being open to a variety of solutions. For example, moving in with family may be the perfect solution for some, yet can lead to more isolation if it breaks the older person’s roots and bonds with their own community. Stories of alternative living arrangements show how these can work at different stages in old age, such as living with similar age friends in a self-selected commune or shared property, rather than going into residential care.
“If old age is catching up, walk a little faster.” (Australian campaign slogan)
4. Men and women draw closer together
Friedan addresses men, women and ageing in chapters headed Why Do Women Age Longer and Better Than Men and Beyond the Masculinity of Youth.
Women, she says, age better than men in terms of identity because they are flexible and more accustomed to change and impermanence. For example, many go through several changes of role, or are used to moving in and out of the labour force.
Older men have to break free of previous definitions of masculinity and face the question: who am I, if not my job? The result can be very positive:
“They glimpse – beyond that dread closing of the door of youth – release from the mandates of sexual and social, financial and professional competition, to express long-buried sides of themselves, to meet their human needs for love and work in new ways, to become finally and fully themselves.”
Friedan shows how different experiences of work, identity and relationships affect how we approach old age. The sexes become closer, the polarization between men and women, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, gets bridged.
Old people still relate sexually, but human needs for intimacy are met in much wider ways than through the sexual focus of our youth, in ways which express the whole self.
“Woman or man, what we all need is some new way to touch, know, love each other the way we really are now”.
5. Older people can show the way
Permeating the book is Friedan’s discovery of “the delight, the sheer excitement of coming into a new place after sixty, after it’s all supposed to be over.” Like the older people she quotes who speak of “being more truly myself”, she can write, “I am myself at this age. I have never felt so free.”
Not everyone will reach, or want to find, this place. Friedan speaks of those who retreat in bitterness or find meaning in routines and the trivial pursuits prescribed for older citizens. But those who want to show the way for future generations will find that this new place “uses the accumulated skills and experience of the past to some new purpose that stretches into the future”.
I finished the book looking forward to turning sixty and beyond. I’m inspired to do more research, reading and writing about the positive possibilities in old age, and I hope many others will want to join in the conversation. You can let me know what you think in the comments section, and leave your email to keep in touch on the topic via my newsletter.
“We have to live our own age … create a new image of age – free and joyous, living with pain, saying what we really think and feel at last – knowing who we are, realizing that we know more than we ever knew that we knew, not afraid of what anyone thinks of us any more, moving with wonder into that unknown future we have helped to shape for the generations coming after us.”
* For current statistics related to old age in the UK, see this helpful summary from Age UK.
Betty Friedan The Fountain of Age Vintage London 1994 (1st publ 1993)