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Celebrating Old Old Age

Posted Apr 20 2009 11:47pm

category_bug_ageism.gif Donna Woodka of Changing Places sent me this brief AP story about Nobel laureate, Rita Levi-Montalcini, who will celebrate her 100th birthday on Wednesday. She works at her namesake brain studies center - European Brain Research Institute (EBRI)–Rita Levi-Montalcini - near Rome, and she is a senator-for-life in the Italian Senate.

I like what she has to say:

"Above all, don't fear difficult moments...The best comes from them."

And

"I am not afraid of death — I am privileged to have been able to work for so long. If I die tomorrow or in a year, it is the same — it is the message you leave behind you that counts, and the young scientists who carry on your work."

And

"At 100, I have a mind that is superior — thanks to experience — than when I was 20."

The last statement undoubtedly has as much to do with genetics, health and plain dumb luck as anything else, but I do believe keeping as active as possible – mentally and physically – helps us maintain into old age.

But there is much more to Senator Levi-Montalcini than the fact of her triple-digit birthday. She has led a fascinating life which you can read about briefly at Wikipedia, in her own words in her Nobel autobiographical sketch and in a longer interview at nature.com concentrating on her brain studies work.

It is becoming commonplace for there to be news stories about people of great age who are “still” doing something – usually physical, such running marathons, participating in swim races, playing golf or bowling, flying an airplane – or, as in the case of a 114-year-old Nigerian, being arrested recently for having 254 bags of cannabis in his home.

In the early years of this blog, I made a point to mention some of these stories about old, old people. I believed it contributed to others' understanding that being old is not synonymous with being decrepit, demented or helpless. Then, a couple of years ago, I squirmed when I ran across one which mentioned in passing that an 85-year-old woman “still” cooks her own meals. I had a great aunt and a grandmother who did that until they day they each died at 90 and 92.

And, there are a growing number of octogenarians and beyond who keep house, drive, shop and do whatever else the rest of us do – maybe with some help for heavier chores. We even know some of them: Millie Garfield of My Mom's Blog, Mort Reichek of Octogenarian, Darlene Costner of Darlene's Hodgepodge, Chancy of driftwoodinspiration. Well, almost, in Chancy's case. (Please let me know who I've left out.)

So I squirmed again when I read the headline on the AP story about Senator Levi-Montalcini: “Italian Scientist, Turning 100, Still Works.”

The discomfort, I have come to see, is due to how such a statement diminishes the person. It negates and demeans an entire life, as though the fact that she works at age 100, and not the work she does, is the most important thing about her. Should I live to an old old age, I really don't want someone saying, “she still turns out a blog post every day.”

It's not that I don't think it's nice to celebrate those big, round-number birthdays. Nor that when someone reaches advanced age, it is not interesting to know how they view their long life and all they have witnessed. I relished a story around election day last November about a 100-plus-year-old, woman, the granddaughter of slaves, who voted for Barack Obama; she is a vivid, living connection to our country's past.

Generally, however, news stories about the old old only serve to separate them from the mainstream of life, marking them – and younger old people too - as other, different and apart from everyone else. There is so much more to everyone than just the number of our years, as Senator Levi-Montalcini's life - when I looked further than the AP story - is.

[ At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson writes about a special packet of letters in A Red Frayed Ribbon. ]

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