Beware the Super Senior Myth

Are society's standards for aging boomers too high?

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Wouldn’t you know it? Baby boomers start getting old and suddenly aging is cool. John Glenn, at 77, returns to space. Seniors travel the globe, do volunteer work, and run marathons. No more doddering codgers, no more grannies in rocking chairs. Is this the future of aging, or simply the birth of another stereotype—the supergeezer?

“Americans over 50 make up the fastest-growing segment of society,” notes historian Theodore Roszak in Civilization (Oct.-Nov. 1998). And aging boomers “will have more savvy and more wealth and be better educated than previous generations,” he says. When they’re elderly, he claims, “it won’t be possible to maintain the image of older people as a small, powerless minority. They’ll be dominant—the majority.”

Roszak, author of America the Wise (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), believes that boomers, as they age, will draw on their experience of youthful political protest to fuel a “longevity revolution” and, as he notes in his book, “join with others in building a compassionate society where people can think deep thoughts, create beauty, study music, teach the young, worship what they hold sacred, and care for one another. It [the longevity revolution] has given this remarkable generation the chance to do great good against great odds.”

Unless they’re all laid up in nursing homes, of course. Roszak acknowledges that boomers aren’t “superhuman” and that “time still inevitably takes its toll on mind and body,” but his—and society’s—expectations of seniors have risen so high in recent years that many elders, however gifted, powerful, or wise, cannot possibly live up to them.

Cultural stereotypes of older people are similar to myths about disabled people, says Joseph P. Shapiro, author of No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement (Times Books, 1993). “Because Americans fear disability, we tend to celebrate people who seem to make the disability go away. The media love stories about the blind sailor who solos across the Atlantic or the man with a prosthetic leg running across Canada.”

In the disability rights movement overachievers are derisively called “supercrips,” Shapiro explains. “There’s nothing wrong with celebrating extraordinary achievement,” he says. “But the challenge for most people with disabilities is far more ordinary. People in wheelchairs can’t work if they can’t get into their office buildings. Society ignores these everyday challenges and gets excited about disabled people who do something extraordinary.”

Similarly, people gravitate toward images of older superheroes because they fear aging, Shapiro says. This ignores the ordinary challenges that older people encounter in daily life. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half—52.5 percent—of Americans over 65 have some disability; a third—33.4 percent—have a severe disability. As people age, the likelihood increases that they’ll have trouble seeing, walking, or hearing.

“The debate about aging presents the erroneous impression that you’re either vigorous or disabled,” he says. “People think that when you’re old, you’re either disabled and in a nursing home or a superhero.

“Disabled people teach America that aging doesn’t mean an end to independence,” he adds. “They teach us that aging and disability are a normal part of life.”

Indeed, as Duncan Wyeth, a customer relations specialist with Michigan Rehabilitation Services, notes, “People with disabilities are a resource for an aging society. We know about living with limitations. We know what it’s like to have to hunt for accessible transportation or housing.”

Coping with retirement? “People with disabilities are leisure-time experts,” says Wyeth, who has cerebral palsy. “Seventy percent of us are unemployed. We’ve already learned to define ourselves by something other than a business identity. We see leisure time as an opportunity for personal growth, not as a failure.”

But, he adds, “We’re just ordinary people—not superheroes.”