Here in Milwaukee we’ve gotten ourselves engaged in a debate about senior centers. The county government, always strapped for cash and having put off needed maintenance for years is now looking at five aging senior centers and wondering what to do.
Senior advocates like myself and my comrades in the League of Progressive Seniors sense the beginning of the end for senior centers and so we are making noise, a lot of noise. But none of us ever really goes to a senior center. It’s not that we wouldn’t be caught dead in one, it’s just that we’re not there yet. We might never be there.
My father, widowed at 89, lived across a ball field from the local senior center.
“You should go, Dad.”
“Nah, just a bunch of old people over there.”
And at the time, I remember laughing at his reaction and being a little proud that my healthy, capable father didn’t want to be lumped in with old people but he was in fact old, very old, and lonely as only a man widowed after a 64 year marriage could be. But I reinforced the stigma of aging by basically patting him on the back for repudiating his own age peers.
The stigma of aging is profound and powerful, at its most intense when we who are old accept the stigma as valid. I’ve been struggling against that by being very public about my age and calling out ageism when I see it in conversations or social media. I want to be a role model for meaningful aging, not so much to other people but to myself, hoping my external life of action and community involvement will beat back my internal fear and loathing of my age.
“You’re not old,” a younger colleague said to me yesterday. “I wouldn’t consider you old.”
Why? Because to consider me old would put me in a stigmatized group? And you like me too much to do that? That’s sweet.
A local think tank released a study of senior centers called “Young at Heart.” To me that put the stigma of senior centers in capital letters. Of course, they think, old people would want to be young at heart because that would be tons better than being what they are – old at heart. The title felt weird and patronizing, like we were worn out adults on our way to become children again.
Even though I hang around with younger people a lot of the time, there is a great comfort and camaraderie being with people my age. We are funny and profane, wise but impatient. We don’t, after all, have all the time in the world. We understand each other’s jokes and remember the mistakes and painful alliances from years ago. We feel free and triumphant in a lot of ways but, despite that joyfulness, we are often stuck in the mud of stigma, not coming from other people, coming from ourselves.
Maybe senior centers, reimagined, could be the place where we learn to love the age we are. Maybe a different kind of senior center might have gotten my father to cross that ball field and be with people who remembered Benny Goodman and could dance a great swing. We need to be with people who know the words to Dylan’s songs and want to compare notes on anti-war protests. We’re out here. We just need some magic.