As a social question moves to the fore, a whole cohort of writers appears to discuss it. Here are two books on aging, one speculative and one pragmatic. While both are more concerned with the course of individual lives than with the impact on society of longer-lived citizens, their publication is clearly a response to today's chorus of voices declaring, "We're still here!"
Theory first. David Gutmann, professor of psychiatry and education at Northwestern University, is analyzing changes in expected gender behavior that occur as men and women age. Aggressive warriors, on the frontier or in Wall Street, tend to become home-keeping, more dependent hedonists with retirement. Womanly mothers and mothers-to-be turn into public activists when nests empty. The crux comes with what he names "the parental emergency." The obligation to reproduce the race demands years of care for the next generation, so men guard the perimeter of family and community while women keep the home fires burning. The emergency over, each gender is free to explore the aspects of human potentiality from which their mission as parents had barred them. Men are also charged with the further duty of maintaining traditional culture, but even here, older women are sometimes able to enter areas of life reserved for males, including that of the sacred. Male and female existence form a cross, each moving from one side to the other.
Gutmann cites data from his own studies of Navajo, Druze and Mayan peoples plus some other anthropological material, along with results from a 1956 survey, the Kansas City Studies of Adult Life in which he took part. His thesis, however, goes beyond social psychology to posit a generic human and even pre-human tendency toward the role-shifting he describes. This bit of socio-biology is by far the least convincing of his surmises. The conduct he observes can, I think, be seen as a natural response to the basic gender split which exists in all human communities, though it is certainly variable in its social, economic and cultural assumptions and prescriptions. All we need posit as inherent are a couple of familiar character traits, curiosity and envy. The heavy duty of protecting women and children may well produce a male urge to lay that burden down and enjoy being looked after for once. To women, on the other hand, being looked after also means being ruled by powerful others, a condition likely to inspire an ardent desire to try a little willful independence.
Gutmann, I'm afraid, is too much in love with his own theory. His data, as he freely admits, includes much less female experience than male. We can't blame him for that: Women's lives simply haven't received much attention till recently. But some of his more imaginative exposition is terribly limited. Art, for example: He cites two brilliant cartoonists, William Steig and George Price, still happily drawing away in their 80s but now depicting scenes typical of Erik Erikson's "inner space" with female figures featured. They are, he feels, inexorably drawn to the domestic sphere. Well, OK. But how about some other aging geniuses: Picasso, Matisse, Monet, in love with experiment and drunk on color? How about the stubborn old chair-borne generals of the Great War who sent young men to die in the trenches in unproductive campaign after campaign? Our later lives may include role-reversals, especially when earlier roles are strictly limited, but we who are still here are still the same people.
Turn now to the pragmatic and valuable new compendium of advice and information from the Boston Women's Health Collective, "Ourselves, Growing Older," which enjoys meeting theory head on and arguing. Is menopause a medical event, to be treated as a disease? Certainly not. Here's what's happening as part of the course of existence; here's how to cope sensibly, looking for medical help when it's needed. Good diet, regular exercise and an ability to ask questions are essential. So is positive thinking--as long as that unattractive phrase is understood to contribute to healthy self-esteem rather than to self-delusion. Anecdotes abound, convey tips and reassure the nervous that others have faced the same problems and found this or that strategy useful. Resources are listed, Medicaid and Medicare explained, and the text enlivened with bits of verse, photographs and cartoons.