Gero-funk

No, by “gero-funk,” I don’t mean I’m branching out into a new energetic genre.

What I mean is: I’m not in a very good mood today. I woke up with a head cold, and I’m feeling weepy and vulnerable. So that may explain why there’s a bit of a grumpy edge to what I’m about to lay on you. (And let me just say from the outset, what I’m taking on here is perhaps one of the trickiest things to think and write about as a gerontologist, even for a gero-punk-otologist. I’ve tried to take it on before, and I’ll probably be trying to work out my thinking about it until the day I go back to the stars, e.g. die.) (And let me say as well, and this is not to denigrate blog writing, but this isn’t a fully fleshed-out essay but a blog-prolegomenon. I’m trying to work some stuff out; in other words, I’m not offering a fully-formed perspective.)

So, I think it has to be about the avoidance of vulnerability. How else to explain how we can be so sensitive to and aware of certain kinds of difference (and the socially constructed inequality that connects to difference), but not to other kinds of difference(s). Such as the difference(s) that emerge as we travel through the life course.

Let me be more specific—How is it that an radical immigrant writer or a feminist sociologist or, for that matter, a critical gerontologist (yep, for real) can be so blind to the social construction of age/aging/later life, so avoidant of what seems to me to be the obvious fact that tangled up with racism, heterosexism, classism, sexism and…and…is ageism?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—aging and old age are everywhere, and nowhere.  A brilliant 40-something author talks lucidly about the interconnections between sexism, racism, and capitalism, but then refers to himself as “old” because he recently had to have back surgery.  What the hell does back surgery have to do with being “old”?  And how do you look into the audience and say “You are all so young in Portland!” when sitting in the front row right in front of you is an obviously chronologically gifted woman (not to mention a couple of other silver-haired folk, not that silver hair is un-young)? What does the author gain by doing a performance of himself as “old,” as older than his audience? I’m not feeling judgmental, just terribly curious. This is all so fascinating to me, and I would have loved to ask the author about it, but in order to even approach the articulation of a lucid question I might have posed to him (and in front of the “young” audience) I’d have had to do at least 15 minutes of pre(r)ambling, which isn’t most folks’ cup of tea.

Ageism, internalized and externalized, it is running rampant. And it isn’t what you think it is, it isn’t just the bland version whereby all old people are seen as being the same in certain ways—sick, tired, conservative, sexless (or sexually depraved), demented. Yikes!

There are all kinds of perspectives on the origins of ageism, some of which I think have some validity, but at this time/place/space I’d assert that ageism is at its core a fear of accepting the deep reality of being a human creature. It emerges from a stubborn refusal to look closely at the human journey across the life course,  it is a manifestation of our fantastic talent especially in the land of plenty to repress the fact that to be embodied consciousness over many decades is to be simultaneously incredibly fortunate (what a fantastic opportunity to get to explore what it means to be human over such a long time-frame) and incredibly vulnerable (we are soft and fleshy, our hearts are tender, our egos are tricksters, and resources run out.). (This may be debatable, but) We will never be a member of an ethnic or cultural group other than the one we are born into (no matter how fully we try to ingest and metabolize the philosophies and practices of other peoples), and we won’t change our sex/gender without a hell of a lot of intensive interventions, and we won’t alter our location in the layers of social stratification without a lot of gumption and luck, but we all have the potential, at least, to travel through the life course and become old humans. And being old is associated with being sick, tired, conservative, sexless (or sexually deprived), demented. Yikes!  No wonder age/aging/later life lives in the shadows.

Some of us work with great diligence to develop compassion for the “others” amongst us, even work on behalf of anti-racism, sexism, heterosexism, classicism, etc. But what about anti-ageism, and not just the ageism that unfairly and unfavorably constructs the “other,” but the internalized ageism we all carry within our selves?

How is it that when imagining what it means, what it could mean to be human, we so often leave out the time-traveling aspect of being  human, that we are all riding on the arrow of time, moving from the earth and back to the stars. Contemplating, accepting, and understanding this existential and experiential truth has the power to connect us human beings across any kind of difference that has, does, or will exist.  We may look all sorts of ways, come from different places on the planet, hold to diverse stories about reality, but the one thing that we have in common, that unites us as human beings is that if we are fortunate to be safe and sound enough to do so we get to participate in the amazing unfolding over time of our own particular self-hood.

About Jenny Sasser

I am currently Chair of the Department of Human Sciences and Director of Gerontology at Marylhurst University. I joined the faculty as an adjunct member of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program in 1997 and since that time, I've been involved in designing many on-campus and web-based courses and programs for adult learners, including in Gerontology. As an undergraduate I attended Willamette University, graduating Cum Laude in Psychology and Music; my interdisciplinary graduate studies at University of Oregon and Oregon State University focused on the Human Sciences, with specialization areas in adult development and aging, women’s studies, and critical social theory and alternative research methodologies. My dissertation became part of a book published in 1996 and co-authored with Dr. Janet Lee--Blood Stories: Menarche and the Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary US Society. Over the past fifteen years I have been involved in inquiry in the areas of creativity in later life; older women's embodiment; sexuality and aging; critical Gerontological theory; transformational adult learning practices; and cross-generational collaborative inquiry. I am co-author, with Dr. Harry R. Moody of Aging: Concepts and Controversies (8th edition). I live in Portland, Oregon my dog Happy. My daughter Isobel is a Freshman at Bard College in New York state. I have been on the planet 47 years.
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6 Responses to Gero-funk

  1. Mary Ruhl says:

    Bravo! How is it, indeed, that we humans are so reluctant to inquire of our very own precious life course, particularly the last bits that provide such profound learning opportunities?

  2. Beautifully said and Brilliantly thought. The arrow is traveling and I sense that a large part of the fear in embodiment of the time-traveler is where it is pointed. What I mean to say is it is hard to be in the moment and appreciative of our self and those around us if we hide from or are afraid of where we are all going. Where is that, what happens as the arrow progresses through space? So many of us pretend we have control and many believe we do have control of an option that does not exist; at least not yet. So control of what? Denial of death and the lack of respect in the meaning of death of current day seem to embody our time travel from a very young age. We seem to have lost our rituals and curiosity for tending the journey and honoring the roles and stages, that in our time are very different and “off” normal patterns than history has programmed us for. My rambling is not an attempt at putting your magnificent fully-formed perspective in a box, but instead to promote its fluent journey and smooth out what of the many cultural nicks in the shaft so that the air glides by a bit smoother. The hand of the archer (who ever we each believe that is) has already decided the target, so it really is about the journey and what we do with it.

    Oh you have given me much to ponder as usual my mentor gero-punk…

    • jennysasser says:

      M.J, this is some of the most inspiring writing I’ve every seen from you (and I’ve seen a lot)! I especially love the imagery that you carry throughout, picking up on my use of the arrow of time metaphor. Thank you for thinking with me.

  3. Helen says:

    Wow!! You said a lot and I think you said it well! I think humans are afraid of what lies beyond this part of the journey and aging inevitably brings us closer to that transition. If we don’t think about what we fear, it’s easier to pretend it doesn’t exist. I think that’s why people shy away from elders. They represent where we are all going – like it or not. I think about it a lot with my father reaching the closing chapters of his journey. It’s been an amazing time with him – not afraid to ask questions for fear of upsetting him, but in honest curiosity about how he feels right now and learning what I can expect when I get there. I’m sad. I’ll miss him. But I’m rejoicing in this new connection and closeness with him as a human and not just my father –

    Sorry – guess you inspired me to write my own essay – LOL

    Great thought provoking work Jenny – Thanks.

    • jennysasser says:

      Oh, Helen, write more, more, more! I especially love what you write about your relationship with your father: “It’s been an amazing time with him – not afraid to ask questions for fear of upsetting him, but in honest curiosity about how he feels right now and learning what I can expect when I get there. I’m sad. I’ll miss him. But I’m rejoicing in this new connection and closeness with him as a human and not just my father –”

      Thank you for posting!

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