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A New Stage, Not the Same Old Story : Personhood: Betty Friedan, who'll talk to the AARP convention in Anaheim Wednesday, sees a barrier she calls 'the Age Mystique.'

May 03, 1994|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — Feminist Betty Friedan has a suggestion for the American Assn. of Retired Persons, which begins its three-day national convention here today: It should change its name to the American Assn. of Resurgent Persons.

With people living longer than ever before, Friedan said, Americans are undergoing a "paradigm shift," a move away from a negative model of old age to a more positive one.

So forget the terms retired persons, the elderly and senior citizens.

"They all have a connotation of something different, something not life, not human, not person, " said Friedan, 73. "I'm talking about the personhood of people all through life, and what we now think of (old) age is another stage of life to be lived."

People in the future, she maintains, won't retire--they'll leave one thing to do another, whether it be in the public or private sector, for pay or as volunteers. Further, she envisions "whole new patterns" in the way people view the important areas of their lives in the later years--from love to work to play.

But there's still a formidable barrier to universal enlightenment: Friedan calls it "the Age Mystique."

"The Age Mystique is more distorted, obsolete, pernicious and pervasive than the Feminine Mystique, which kept us from seeing the reality of women," said Friedan, whose 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique" served as one of the catalysts for the women's movement. "We have to move from the accepted view of age as a programmed decline from youth to terminal senility and therefore only as a problem for society.

"And when we break through that Age Mystique and look at this new stage in terms of its possibilities, then everything is changed. And choice is every bit as important in this new third of life as it was in the earlier stage of life."

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Friedan, who is scheduled to speak at the convention on Wednesday, will undoubtedly find a receptive audience for her message.

The gathering, which is open to the public, is expected to draw up to 30,000 people over the next three days. Conventioneers will be able to view more than 200 exhibits, including of cars and RVs, fitness products, clothing, exercise equipment, travel and information from service providers.

But the big draw will be the more than two dozen educational sessions featuring a host of nationally known figures speaking on issues of interest to those who have reached the AARP target age of 50 and over: everything from substance abuse and Alzheimer's disease to patient rights and good nutrition.

That's in addition to "Firing Line" host William F. Buckley Jr. speaking on talk show politics, Dr. C. Everett Koop on health care trends, "Wall Street Week" host Louis Rukeyser on the economy, former U.S. Atty. Gen. Elliot Richardson on the world today and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the environment.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer will be on hand today to participate in a panel on "Love, Sexuality and Aging." And America's best-known psychosexual therapist has good news.

"Older people can be sexually active if they are healthy until a very late stage in life," the enthusiastic Dr. Ruth said in her familiar German accent. "They might not be able to engage in all the positions--they might not be able to hang from a chandelier--but older people need to touch and be touched."

Speaking by car phone during a limo ride to a speaking engagement in New York City last week, Westheimer said that "scientifically validated data" negates the perception that sexuality ceases with old age.

"That's exactly why I'm flying to Anaheim," said the 65-year-old Westheimer. "It's important to give good information, especially in this youth-oriented country of ours because now we are going to have a graying of America."

Indeed. It barely seems possible, but the first baby-boomers will turn 50 in 1996. And they'll soon be followed by 77 million fellow boomers.

Friedan, who says she overcame denial of aging while writing her recent book, "The Fountain of Age," views the influx of the former "don't trust anyone over 30" crowd this way:

"The baby boomers will be the troops that make the great social revolution at the end of the century. And just as that generation made the new music in the youth movement of the 1960s, in the 1990s they will make the new songs of age."

In fact, said AARP executive director Horace Deets, the number of Americans 50 and over will double from about 66 million today to about 130 million in the next 35 years.

Deets, needless to say, agrees with Friedan's contention that Americans must change their negative view of aging.

"We are living longer, but we also are more healthy and active on average than ever before," he said. "I think we need to get away from the stereotype that says aging equals infirmity and decline. We've got to see life as a continuum."

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