The Real Truth About Being Old and Female

January 28, 2012

in Uncategorized

Who would have thought 14 million viewers would tune in to NBC’s broadcast of the Betty White Special celebrating her 90th birthday.  The endearing “Golden Girl” was feted by some of the most popular stars of the day, as well as the President of the United States.

It was suggested to me that older women perhaps are finally coming into their own.  Actress Cloris Leachman was 82 when she danced the light fantastic on “Dancing With the Stars.”  Barbara Walters continues to land the big interviews for her TV specials, still appears daily on “The View” while also hosting a satellite radio talk show.  She’s in her 80’s and had open-heart surgery not long ago.  Diane Sawyer, who anchors ABC’s “World News Tonight,” is nearing 70.  Lesley Stahl, long time co-host of “60 Minutes,” is already 70.  This all sounds pretty good considering the fact women in television were warned in the 1970’s, by men of course, that their careers would be over after they turned 40.

Betty White can attract an audience because people love her.  She’s warm and funny and a little raunchy.  The other women I mentioned are exceptional at their jobs.  Does that mean elderly females are gaining acceptance in our society?  Absolutely not.  They are the least of us as a people.

Older women in America say they feel invisible.  Ordinary people don’t respect them; men don’t seek their company, no body cares about their opinions.  Their children are grown and gone.  They are often widowed or divorced and living alone on meager incomes.  In fact, they are among the poorest in the population.  They suffer with the ailments of old age.  They are fearful of being attacked.  They slowly and quietly await death.  There is nothing else to look forward to.

Old ladies long for the days gone by when men turned their heads to steal a glance at them.  Then, their bodies were firm and curvaceous; their hair thick and lustrous; their faces smooth and free from imperfections.

How do I know, you ask?  Because I am a septuagenarian.  But like many of us at this age I am an exception, too.  I have a full-time job.  I teach college journalism.  One of the courses I am now teaching is reporting on diverse and minority groups.  Among those, is the aged.  I told my senior and graduate students I was going to write a piece for CNN about older women.  I went to the whiteboard with a marker and wrote down their answers to my question: “When you think of old women, what comes to mind?”

The answers from the twenty-something’s were what I expected.  Here are just a few: “Wrinkles, whiskers on their face, too much makeup, smelly, tacky clothes, ugly shoes, walkers, lonely, repeat themselves, lots of cats, hot flashes, shrinking bodies, go to the bathroom all the time, knick knacks, don’t have sex, always complaining.”

If that’s what young people think of older women, is there any wonder they don’t want to spend time with them or respect them?

I have international students from India, China and Nigeria, who said that in their countries, young people had to bow and even kiss the feet of their elderly relatives.  The women, they said, are always consulted for advice because they are viewed as wise in the ways of the world.  People listen to what they have to say.

My sister passed away last summer at age 78.  She lived in California so I didn’t see her often.  She was Exhibit A, I’m sorry to say, of the plight of older women.  She was a widow and never got over the death of her husband.  She became clinically depressed.  She lived alone with her four cats and lamented that her children and grandchildren, who lived nearby, didn’t call or visit.  She “let herself go” and often needed money.  I remember her telling me how rude people were to her and how a teenage girl pushed her out of the way and snarled, “Move it, grandma.  You’re in the way.”  My sister was so unhappy death was probably a blessing.

Our outlooks on age were vastly different.  While she succumbed to it I have been fighting it all my life.  As a broadcast journalist I had to work hard, sound good, and look good.  I watched my weight and struggled to manage stress.  I even had plastic surgery when the chin and eyes began to sag on camera.

Now that I am teaching, I am trying to change young people’s perception of what it is to be an older woman.  I don’t leave the house without being dressed appropriately and made up with hair groomed.  I laugh heartily at my students’ jokes and the YouTube videos they want me to see.  I seek out fun and look for all the little joys in life like popcorn and Junior Mints at the movies.  I try not to complain about every ache and pain that strikes.  I mentor my students and now they seek me out for advice on matters professional and private.

I think there are growing numbers of older women of my generation who are turning outward instead of inward and showing society that we have value, wisdom, and a love of life.  Maybe we will make the difference and achieve what has eluded elderly females for way too long:  R-E-S-P-E-C-T.


Carolyn January 28, 2012 at 7:09 pm

This is a wonderfully stated piece…heartfelt and received. I wrote a post on aging and relationships from a mental health point of view and what you’ve written can’t be overstated.
It is truly ‘respect’ that is needed and should be promoted by all of us.

Thank you and others for being shining examples of how we should live fully during the * ‘third act’ of our lives with class, beauty and intellect.
Peace and blessings…..

*Jane Fonda’s coinage of that phase of her life.

Jonie January 29, 2012 at 1:09 am

Every word is so true!

Jan F. Smith January 30, 2012 at 11:27 am

This was a great article. I am 54 and will do my best not to be the typical old lady. You know, some women act old even when they are young!

Sue Bergeron January 30, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Ms. Simpson, thank you for this wondeful article. I am 62. When people say to me “you are old” I say, “no, I am not old, you are.” Since October 2006 I have worked as a Vessel Administrator. I work offshore on dive vessels, ROV vessels, pipe-laying barges, and salvage barges. I work 12-15 hrs a day, 7 days a week, from 28 to 90 days at a stretch, depending on the needs/scope of work. In general I pull longer hitches than the majority of the men with whom I work. Overall I am in excellent health albeit slightly over-weight. I am a Chrisitan woman, and the men respect me for that. They watch their language around me, and apologize when they slip – which is almost non-stop, being “oilfield trash.” I wear make-up and perfume to work because I am still feminine despite the environment in which I work. It is my intention to continue this work for at least another 5 years, then retire to open a junk store/flea market and continue to go on cruises. I am proof that a woman does not have to be old just because she is over 40, or 50. I do not complain about aches and pains (have almost none); am not on any medications; and on my off-time I make road trips, go camping, dancing, roller-skating, walking, and am into taking cruises now. And do this alone most of the time because I am single. I come from good genes; my mom is almost 86 and is only just in the past few months slowing down. She lives alone, drives, shops, runs her own errands and takes care of herself for the most part. When I am home we “run the roads” almost every day. We are older, but she and I are not old, and don’t allow anyone to tell us we are.

Elena January 31, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Once again, Ms. Simpson says it like it is.

Will it ever change?

Thank goodness someone tells the truth.

Tawanda July 31, 2012 at 4:35 pm

I wonder how our thoughts of old women are influenced by the health care practices for women. Especially the fact that on an annual basis 600,000+ women’s reproductive/sexual organs are removed. What does this do to the normal aging process of such a large body of women and thus the societal view of older women. Maybe if women were allowed to age naturally, given that hysterecomty is primarily done for non-life threatening reasons, and only done in par with the same levels for reproductive/sexual organ removal as men – we might have a different opinion of these long-lived women. But I guess first we must get the medical community to stop claiming that the removal of these organs have no consequences beyond sterility and hormonal loss (not that these aren’t significant events).

G. McArthur September 2, 2012 at 5:13 am

You have “aced” this subject. I am currently reading your book. My favorite chapter is “Ms.Simpson Goes to Washington”. You Go Girl !
PS. I love the “Golden Girls” then and espesically “Now”

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: