How do you keep life from becoming a parody of itself? It is more difficult in a culture that treats aging as a disease. – Simone de Beauvoir, The Coming of AgeWhen I hear the term “coming of age,” my first thought is of a young person’s transition from being a child to being an adult and the many novels and films about that period of adolescence. But that is not what is meant by the book title The Coming of Age which is “a study spanning a thousand years and a variety of different nations and cultures to provide a clear and alarming picture of ‘society’s secret shame’ — the separation and distance from our communities that the old must suffer and endure” by Simone de Beauvoir. It was written by Simone de Beauvoir (9 January 1908 – 14 April 1986) who was a French existentialist philosopher, writer, social theorist, and feminist activist. Though she did not consider herself a philosopher, and even though she was not considered one at the time of her death, she had a significant influence on both feminist existentialism and feminist theory. She asks what do the words elderly, old, and aged really mean? How are they used by society, and how in turn do they define the generation that we are – or once were – taught to respect and love, but instead often reprimand and avoid? As I have crossed into the “senior citizen” category, I pay more attention to how we as a society treat this generation. I noted things earlier as I was caring for my mother and my older sister. I often wondered who was helping some of their fellow seniors who had no family or friends at all or that were nearby or anyone willing to help with things like bills, healthcare, shopping, and all of the everyday life that many of us take for granted. I ended up helping some people in my mom’s facility with forms. Not only are insurance, Social Security, IRS and other forms complicated, many require you to go online and these were people who still only used a wired landline. No smartphone, no computer and no knowledge about how to use those things if they had access to them. Simone de Beauvoir suggests that the way we treat the elderly is a reflection of our society’s values and priorities. It’s not a pleasant reflection.
“Old age is a problem on which all of the failures of society converge. And that is why it is so carefully hidden.” – Simone de Beauvoir“I don’t know, for example, how I will be when I am ninety years old,” said de Beauvoir, when she was 66 in the documentary film, Promenade au pays de la vieillesse (A Walk through the Land of Old Age). Simone did not make it to 90, but she certainly lived long enough to experience aging in the world of the 1980s. As a feminist, de Beauvoir does not ignore the particular problems that women experience as they age, many of which do not affect men in the same ways and to the same degree. I haven’t read her book. I have only read about it, but I certainly agree with her general argument. Aging is often seen as a disease to be fought with surgery and medications and less often treated with care and concern.