Always Reaching Out

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She forever changed how our society perceives women; now let her teach you how to view aging as an adventure. Betty Friedan, an integral figure in the Women’s Liberation Movement and co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), still has an exceptional amount of wisdom to impart. With the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963, Friedan provided a voice for countless women and changed the course of history. But Friedan’s work as a feminist and sociologist was just beginning.

She went on to publish volumes of work on her involvement in the women’s movement and the changing status of women in society. In 1993, however, she turned her attention to the psychology of old age and the way aging and the elderly are perceived in our country. The Fountain of Age was a pioneering book on an often overlooked and under utilized segment of the population and quickly became a national best seller.

Today, sitting in an apartment at The Georgetown Retirement Residence, Betty Friedan chats about the phenomenal and rapid progression of the women’s movement and brings attention to the strides that still need to be made in dealing effectively with an aging population. Friedan recently decided to move to The Georgetown after realizing that relying on in-home caregivers for necessary medication was a “precarious situation.” She joined long-time friends Senator Eugene McCarthy and Victor Reuther at the community.

She says that although she toured several communities before making a decision, she did not like their “impersonal, hotel-like” atmospheres, and knew that at The Georgetown she “would have someone to talk to.” The central location of the community factored into her decision as well; she lived just a few blocks away for the last seven years.

Comfortably settled into her new apartment, Friedan’s focus continues to be on dispelling the myth of aging as a process of gradual decline. “I don’t believe in retirement. You can retire from one thing, but you have to move on to another,” she asserts. She explains that the key to vital, long life are purposes and projects; one must have a purpose and remain involved in order to reap the benefits of old age. In practice, this philosophy could simultaneously serve the interests of seniors and the larger community.

According to Friedan, the failure of our society to acknowledge, through programs and services, the incalculable value of our senior population is a shortcoming that needs to be addressed on a large scale. She explains, “The Baby Boom will be followed by a baby bust, and there will not be enough people to do the work of the society-to keep it moving forward-unless we begin to take more seriously the abilities and skills of the elderly.”

Almost as important as purpose, what Friedan terms “bonds of intimacy” are essential to healthy aging. These bonds can be strengthened by “touching other human beings,” she says. Touching in this sense is not simply physical; it encompasses all types of human connection. Bonds, whether they are physical or emotional, are formed by opening yourself to others. When people begin to embrace aging as a process of development rather than degeneration, it opens the door for these bonds to be formed.

“When I interviewed people who were 65 plus and asked them, ‘what is the difference between yourself now and when you were 40?’ they never said, ‘I can’t hear as well now’ or anything like that. They always told me that they are more themselves now-that they have become who they really are,” says Friedan. She goes on to relate that for women this transformation is often exemplified by a change back to their natural hair color. Women stop dying their hair, she says, because they “give up the act” and find it “enlivening-a sort of relief.”

“Giving up the act” involves overcoming what Friedan terms an “obsession with youth in our popular culture.” The emphasis in the mass media is on how to act, think, look, and live younger-rather than on how to be your age and enjoy the benefits of collected experience. Despite the pervasive images of youthfulness as desirable and enviable, Friedan believes we are on the cusp of a change in how the elderly are perceived. She says, “I look forward to a day-hopefully in the near future-when we will see images of romance, adventure, and achievement for people over 60.”

Hopefully, the changes she foresees for seniors in our society will come as swiftly, and influence our culture as widely, as the ones she dared to dream of for women in the early 60s. By her own admission, the condition of women in our society has changed faster than she could have imagined. Friedan goes on to explain that while there is still work to be done to ensure equitable pay for women in the workforce and the availability of quality childcare, women are no longer “just sex objects, wives, or mothers. They are now able to think of themselves as unique individuals who are in control of their lives.”

The famed feminist encapsulates the almost unfathomable scope of the women’s movement with a simple anecdote: “People used to say, ‘what do you want to be little boy?,’ and ‘aren’t you pretty little girl?’ Little girls are now asked what they want to be, and that is incredible.” If Betty Friedan has her way, seniors will no longer be asked when they are going to retire; instead, they will be pondering the question, ‘what are you going to do next?’

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