The Radical Age Movement Comes Out

New York-The Radical Age Movement held its first public event last evening at the New York Ethical Culture Society.  One hundred people came out in the freezing cold to hear about what it takes to “leverage the power of age”.

The evening began with a welcome from Dr. Phyllis Harrison-Ross, Chairperson of the Social Service Board of the New York Ethical Culture Society.

Alice Fisher, founder of The Radical Age Movement, then talked about the need for people who don’t like the way that old people are portrayed and regarded in what she described as the “youth oriented culture of the United States” need to speak up.  Alice told of her deep interest in longevity and its multiple effects on society and how this led her to the founding of The Radical Age Movement.

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Founder Alice Fisher, MSW

“I came to the realization that the extra years many of us will be living are not tacked on to the end of our lives.  Rather, a whole new stage of life has opened up along the life span, and those are people between approximately 60 and 80 years of age who are still a vital and relevant part of our society.”  “We”, said Fisher who is 69 years old, “are not ready to throw in the towel.”  After being asked, “how do you change an entire culture”, her response was “with a movement.  It’s the only way we’ve ever done it.”  Right then and there the seed for The Radical Age Movement was planted.

After working for over a year with a small 10 person steering committee and launching a website a few months ago, The Radical Age Movement was ready to come out.  “When people leave their career positions, whether by choice or not by choice, they walk into a void”, she said.  “There is no role for us in society, unless we want to accept the description of old just because we are collecting social security.”  People of this age, although older, are not ready to be consigned to the rocking chair. “Nobody even knows what to call us.  Sometimes we’re the old boomers or the young seniors.  We don’t even know what to call ourselves”, said Fisher.

The original agenda for last evening’s event included a participatory demo of what it is like to be part of an age-oriented consciousness raising group.  Not expecting such a large turnout and without enough facilitators to guide the number of groups that would be necessary to run this part of the program as planned, Radical Age decided to let the program run with interactive discussion.  After a presentation about ageism by Joanna Leefer, 65, a care-giving consultant, three people gave personal testimony about their own confrontation with ageism, while two others testified to the effect that participating in consciousness raising around the topic of age has had on the way they are experiencing ageing.

Corinne Kirchner, 79, who is a sociology professor at Columbia University and  who experienced two strokes in her 70’s, talked about the way that people constantly try to give her too much help.  She described Thanksgiving dinner where a nurse who was a guest at the dinner followed her around, prepared to catch Corinne should she fall. Understanding that the nurse was trying to be kind, Corinne was very polite but “inside I was so angry that this person was treating me like a child learning to walk.”10911401_414546068714498_9154173076394596286_o

Hope Reiner, 70, the founder of “Hope Cares”, a companion service that provides one-on-one stimulation, socialization and engagement to older adults, talked about her abrupt dismissal from the consumer magazine publishing world where she worked for over 33 years. “Despite the magazines’ high ratings and high revenue and my standing as the #1 salesperson for much of that time”, she told the audience, “my career ended. I can only assume my dismissal was based on my age.”

Next it was Rodger Parsons’ turn to talk about his personal experience with ageism.  Roger, 68 years old, does voiceovers for Radio, TV, Cable commercials as well as author voiceovers for other venues. He spoke about how ageism is especially relevant in the Voice Over world and ways of dealing with it. “It is especially important to confront situations as directly as possible to get outcomes that make it clear that access to work should be based on the talent of the performer not the performer’s age.”

After each of these testimonies, lively discussions from the audience ensued. People shared their own experiences or commented on the testimony they had just heard.

Alice then took the podium and gave a brief description of the consciousness raising process that The Radical Age steering committee has been using. “The one advantage to participating in this process”, she said, is providing participants the space and time to examine our own ageist tendencies”.  “After all”, said Fisher, “we did grow up in this youth oriented society.”  The Radical Age Movement is developing a guide for people who want to start their own consciousness raising group around the topic of age.  This guide will be posted to The Radical Age Movement’s website, www.theradicalagemovment.com, in the coming weeks and be distributed at their next event on February 21st.

Barbara Harmon, 72, a speech language pathologist, and Jon Fisher, 70, artist and real estate broker, then testified to the changes that participating in the consciousness raising process has made for each of them.

Barbara spoke of how she came to accept the graciousness of those who offer her seats on crowded subways after coming to the realization that her own ageist attitude was getting in the way of her being able to accept aid when offered.  “Accepting a seat acknowledges the fact that my age is recognized; but because of the discussion and support of my peers, I now feel comfortable with the recognition”.

Jon talked about his career in the ad business where everything had to be new and fresh, including the people.  “I had the mindset that I had to look, act, and feel young; and I carried that with me into my personal life.  When I was invited to join the consciousness raising group, I really didn’t think that my ideas about ageing would ever change.  Now, I also feel more comfortable in my age.  The consciousness raising process has made a major imprint on who I am and who I am becoming”.

Remarks and conversation continued until it was time to leave.  Alice asked everyone to take a save-the-date for The Radical Age Movements next event on February 21st.  This will be a 4 hour workshop entitled “The Age Café.”  Through this process, those who attend will have the opportunity to help plan Radical Age’s agenda going forward.

Reacting to Alice’s expression of disappointment at not being able to proceed as planned, one attendee said that  the evening was one huge gestalt consciousness raising session.  Another comment by a member of the steering committee was, “I think we have the start of a real movement here.”  That expression was echoed by many who attended the event.

Who Is Old?

Edith Connors 77 year old body builder
Edith Connors 77-year-old body builder

Who is old?  What does old mean?  Who decides that you are old?  Who do you identify as old?

Is it age?  Do you automatically become old the day you start collecting your social security? Some people collect at 62, some at 66, and some at 70.  Or, maybe it’s the year you become eligible. Can it be the day you retire from your career job?  Or maybe it’s the day you become a grandparent.

My mother-in-law didn’t become old until she turned 90, while my mother decided she was old at 80. They self-selected when to be old. Meanwhile, my best friend who has a form of rheumatoid arthritis self-identified as old when she was only 55. So, it’s possible that old is when you need assistance with certain activities and realize that you are slowing in your performance. A 72 year old friend mentioned to me, “I can’t believe how much longer it’s taking me to walk to the office each morning. I used to be such a fast walker.“  Is she now old?

I am certain that my grandchildren identify me as old, while my peers tell me how young I look. Maybe that’s the answer. Old, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. My husband tells me I look as young as the day we met, which can hardly be true since that was over fifty years ago. Maybe we are old when our hair turns gray. Yet, I have a friend who went prematurely gray in her thirties.

Another answer might be that we are old when we start receiving senior discounts. I do have a senior Metro-Card that entitles me to use New York City’s subways and buses at half price. I have an AARP card, and I now go to movies and visit museums for senior admission rates.

Do all cultures and societies see “old” similarly?  Eastern cultures tend to value age and equate age with wisdom. Unfortunately, Western cultures put a higher value on youth. This causes many of the aging people I know to go to great lengths to appear younger than their actual age. I have an 85 year old constituent who came to see me one day carrying a large umbrella. “Is it raining?” I asked. “Oh, no”, she replied, but I refuse to walk with a cane.”

We, here in the United States and other Western industrialized counties, are experiencing a longevity boom. People here may not be perceived as old until they are in their 70s or maybe even 80s. Yet, in third world countries that are ravaged by war and hunger, people are perceived as old at a much younger age.

So, old may be determined by the place you live or the era in which you were born. My grandmother at 70 was an old woman. I am 68 and would not be described as an “old woman” by most people I know. Old can also be determined by one’s environment or the circumstances under which one lives. Those who live in poverty and those who are marginalized may not have access to good health care or healthy food. People who live in these minority communities are old sooner than those from middle and upper class majority neighborhoods.

So, it seems then that old is a socially constructed category. What old is to me may be different than what old means to you.

There is much truth in the adage, “Once you’ve seen one old person, you’ve seen one old person.” We are aging from the moment we are born; and the more we age,–the more we experience our own individual lives–the more diverse we become. Our individual lived experiences then may be the only key to determining when each of us is old.

Are you old?  If so, when did you become old?  If you are not old, what makes you see someone else as old?  Why do you think a society’s definition of old is important?

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