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.
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.