Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Posted by Thomas MacEntee
Therese McGinnis Austin (1894 - 1988). Photograph. June 1988, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Digital image. Privately held by Thomas MacEntee, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Chicago, Illinois. 2008.
[This post was written for the 52nd Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy hosted by Lisa at 100 Years In America]
"It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage." Indiana Jones
I use the above line whenever I am asked my age. I find as I get older, I get asked less and less often. I do get a thrill when the door person at a local bar asks for my ID. In my usual, self-depricating manner, I ask them if they really want to see it and then say "I'm so old, my ID is printed on papyrus."
The concept of age brings up many issues for me, not just because I am hitting Middle Age, but because the way our society sees aging has changed greatly in the past 30 years.
Age In My Family Tree
Longevity tends to run along many of my family lines, more among the females which is not unexpected. My great-grandmother Therese McGinnis Austin with whom I was very close, died at the age of 94. As a child up through my teens, I was always fascinated with Grandma's stories of life in turn of the century New York City. While I could have easily learned about these things through any history book, it was special to hear about how life was lived back then by someone who actually lived it.
I am sure that some of the stories Grandma told were in fact either stories or were "amplified" but I think that is the prerogative of someone who has lived past 90 and lived a full life at that.
As a child, what was your reaction when you first encountered an elderly relative? Was it difficult to imagine that they had ever been your age, that they had ever been a small child? I know for me it was very difficult - even after being provided photographs, toys or clothes from a relative's childhood. I thought for sure that they were just trying to fool me.
Did Grandma have the same "issues" that I did growing up? I think while the issues may not be exact, many of them were quite similar. Just as I've adapted to the desktop computer, blogging, fax machines, ATMs, etc. - Grandma in her time had to deal with the radio, the phonograph, the car, etc. I don't know that the technology of the time matters - we both lived through the advent of new technologies that would have astounded our ancestors.
But some area of life were definitely different between our lives: women's rights and the right to vote; racial equality; improvements in health care and longevity. Many of these things I just take for granted but for Grandma they brought changes in life whether one was ready or not.
Age As Perception
Age is a matter of perception - of how we as an observer see age and the changes it brings to loved ones as well as how it impacts our perceptions of ourselves over time. But also society sees aging very differently from generation to generation.
In my family tree, during the 17th and 18th century, it was common for my ancestors to live to the ripe old age of 40 or 50. Forget that 60, 70 or 80 was uncommon with 90 being unheard of. With the Industrial Revolution, improvements to health care, the advent of indoor plumbing, electric, etc. more and more of my ancestors lived to be 50 or 60. And by the 20th century, 70 and 80 were just as common.
Even in my time, how old is "old" has changed. Remember the phrase "never trust anyone over 30?" Back in the 1960s, if you were in your 40s it was expected that you would have wrinkles, age lines, grey hair, etc. Back then my great-grandparents were already in their 70s and probably seemed ancient to anyone under 30.
Now, becoming a member of AARP happens at age 50 - and not many are ashamed of it! Baby boomers are filling up the sports medicine clinics for new hips and knees since they are staying much more active later in life as compared to their parents or grandparents. Life really does start at 40, retirement doesn't always happen at 65, many people in their 70s and 80s decide to go back to work, at least part-time, etc.
Did this change in perception happen because those doing the aging decided they wouldn't be pigeon-holed into a long-held perception of age 50, 60, 70? Or is it simply economics - companies willing to market to a population that ages but still participates fully in life, lives longer, and has greater assets?
Is Age A Measure Of A Life Well-Lived?
I think that is the question that often challenges me. I don't know at what age I will just decide to give up and live the life of "an old person." With my current arthritis in my hips some days I think it is now. But then I realize that the arthritis is probably from the years of hard-core weightlifting and ballroom dancing. And with new hips I could probably give a 25 year old a run for his or her money.
I don't want to necessarily live to an old age, to be unable to perform the basic skills of life without assistance. But it isn't up to me. What is up to me is choosing to live a full life with the time I have. Not many people in my family have been the type to wait for life to come to them. Most of us are what you would call "go-getters" - people who try different things, tend to be a bit eccentric, are always opinionated yet well-mannered. They follow Auntie Mame's quote, "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death. Live, live, live!"