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.