Originally published March 3, 2001
Elspeth Odbert hardly epitomizes the typical 71-year-old great-grandmother.
She has been touring the country off and on for 25 years as a storyteller, writer and lecturer, currently traveling in a powder-blue converted school bus. Speaking in Columbia last night as part of a 10-city tour, she discussed the myths she said Americans hold about old age - what she calls "our last taboo."
"We all know to prepare ourselves financially for old age," she said to a crowd of about 30 at the Unity Church on Broadway last night. "I hear 25-year-olds say they’re taking a job because of the retirement benefits. That’s pretty horrifying - to lock ourselves into a pattern for 45 years so there will be money at the end of it."
People do little to prepare themselves emotionally, physically or spiritually for getting old, Odbert said. With life spans increasing, people will spend much of their lives as senior citizens, but they will rarely picture what they will do with those years, she said.
Odbert said such attitudes stem from the way people think of the senior years as a time of helpless dependency. "The image our culture presents is one of people who are diseased, disabled and senile," she said in a soft southern accent. "To be useless, a failure, with no purpose."
Americans are geared toward youth, she said, and "put the elderly away, in places far from the mainstream," in contrast with more traditional cultures that venerate the elderly.
The message resonated with some of the audience members, many of whom appeared in their thirties.
"Part of thinking about aging is learning to embrace change," said Lisa Bruce, 33. "I live in a college town and already the students look young to me."
"Start now to alter things in your life that will give you a longer, healthier old age," like staying physically fit and eating healthier, Odbert said to the younger members of the crowd. She urged young adults to start thinking early about growing in their older years.
Odbert maintains that many of the common problems of aging, like senility and chronic disease, can be avoided. "I firmly believe that much of what we think of as the inevitable result of aging is actually neglect," she said, and that a change in behavior would allow people to live not only longer, but better.
"Most people seem to get to age 50 or 60 and just stop learning anything new," Odbert said. "They don’t make new friends; they don’t broaden their world."
Noting that the number of Americans over 50 who return to college rises every year, Odbert said the senior years should be a time to "go about becoming a whole person." She describes old age as a time when people can concentrate on personal growth, free of the pressure to please parents and peers and the responsibilities of making a living.
"If you’ve always wanted to be a ballet dancer, take ballet," Odbert said. "You won’t join the New York Ballet Company, but you can have fun."
"This has really helped me get away from the feeling of being limited," said Rain LeClair, 63. "I came away thinking there were so many things I could do."