When I told my friend Terrie that I wanted to write a piece about getting old, her reaction was, Oh, that’s so depressing. But when I read it to her after I’d written it, I could hear the relief in her voice. The most important things in this world, she said, are awareness, self-reflection and hope, and I heard all those things in what you wrote. What a lovely thing for her to say.

For Asian-Americans, Atlanta shooting sows fresh fear after a year of mounting discrimination—Reuters

The Pandemic Mistake America Can’t Repeat—The Atlantic

Surge in Migrants Defies Easy or Quick Solutions for Biden—The New York Times

March 17, 2021

Getting old-old
by Ruth Neuwald Falcon, Seattle, Washington

I was listening to Hidden Brain on NPR the other day while I was taking a walk, a change from my usual diet of hard news. They were rebroadcasting an episode from 2019, Radically Normal: How Gay Rights Activists Changed the Minds of Their Opponents.

Michael Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Stanford, talked about the fact that there is “more rapid change in attitudes towards gay rights in the past 30 years in the United States than there ever has been in recorded attitudes in the United States on any issue.”

It was interesting to listen to the exploration of the many probable causes for this shift. But it was something else that really caught my attention.

I don’t understand the “thought experiment” conducted by Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji and her colleagues, but I got the gist of it. Somehow, they are able to map “the speed at which different biases are changing.” Banaji says that “the forecasts show that if things go swimmingly well, in nine years, anti-gay attitudes will be all but eliminated—that we will reach neutrality.”

That’s amazingly wonderful. But what I was struck and saddened by were the projections of how long it will take for “Americans to see blacks and whites the same way”—nearly six decades—and biases against the old “will not reach neutrality even within the next 150 years.”

That last one really hit home, because of my age, yes, but also because of my own attitudes that I don’t like to admit having. I share some of those prejudices against the old-old and I dread being considered such. I dread feeling tolerated by younger people. I dread slowing down and becoming dependent. I dread the physical infirmities that start to creep up, until one day it’s not a creep any more but a tackle. Even more, I dread the mental infirmities, the brain that can no longer keep up.

I still have a decades-old memory of sitting on the M-104 bus going down Broadway and watching a tiny crooked man clamber painfully aboard while driver and passengers waited with differing degrees of patience. I remember bent-over women pulling shopping carts down the crowded streets and people dodging around them with clucks of annoyance. I would look at their old faces and think, They didn’t start out looking like that. How does that happen to a person?

I’m not there yet, and none of us can predict the future. I had compassion for those old people in New York. My heart went out to them. I hope I will have the same compassion for myself. I don’t have 150 years to wait for attitudes to change.


  1. Dear Ruth…thank you for sharing your little essay on biases, especially on growing old-old. Thanks, too for telling us that what Terrie ended up truly appreciating was your emphasis on awareness, self-reflection and hope! I think she hit on the key to accepting and even appreciating growing old.

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  2. Thank you for sharing this part of your self, it resonated for me too. I agree with Terrie that I heard awareness, self reflection, and hope in this. But I also heard fear. This is not new but it is powerful, and I don’t want it to win! In this time of isolation and increased loneliness all around I have to keep reminding myself of everything I have now. You are so loved by many people and are as bright in spirit and mind as I have ever known you to be. Old-old is a mindset not a physicality other than in our perception of others.

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  3. I don’t deny my age. But I don’t let it define me either. With age I have developed both memory and forgettery. It is with such a confluence. Of these complementary Elements that I’ve been able to define myself and give myself more confidence than ever at 73. I don’t feed into the organ recital of aches, pains and sufferings so common In conversations with my contemporaries. Neither do I feel the need to keep up with current trends In pop culture. The music of 60 years ago is still popular with the young set. Growing up with Mad Magazine and Saturday Night Live and having my worldview influenced by both Perhaps I was a curmudgeon before my time. And even at this age. I still often feel ahead of my time, so I can’t wait until the world catches up with me. I don’t feel old and I don’t feel young. But when I feel present everything opens up and I have all that I need and more. I may be naive and in denial, it’s working for me and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone around me. So there!

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