“Spring passes and one remembers one’s innocence.
Summer passes and one remembers one’s exuberance.
Autumn passes and one remembers one’s reverence.
Winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.”
― Yoko Ono
If you are reading this on February 28, 2014, then you are reading it on the day after my birthday—I am 58 years old now. I wrote previously about aging and feminism and reclaiming our bodies—my fears of wrinkles—well, not fear…my surprising distaste/revulsion of them, and then yes, fear. My ability to maintain peace inside my aging body came about because I have a life-long history of feminism and I practice yoga. I explored all of this in one of my first blog posts for this site, “If You’re Lucky, You Get Old.” That was two years ago.
I am happy to say that I am no longer scared by my face—by its changes. I believe that “if we are lucky, we get old.” Now—I don’t want to just “get old,” I want to get old and be healthy—and by healthy I mean I want to keep my mind.
This past month I went back to the East Coast to attend the funeral of my mother. She died of Alzheimer’s. Yes. Feminism and Alzheimer’s. Women get Alzheimer’s more than men—women constitute 2/3 of those who get the disease. I know many friends who are afraid now—their mothers had it—are we going to get it? There is a lot of research on Alzheimer’s and little information. There is however the information that women get it more often than men. Some of the things that can prevent Alzheimer’s are physical exercise, healthy diet and social activity. Are these harder for women to attain than men?
“There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.” ― Sophia Loren
We have made temples of gyms and diet doctors have become gurus. Women have lost weight, gained weight, struggled with eating disorders, read self-help books, gone to therapy, been medicated with anti-depressants (see my good friend Jennifer Berry’s play Big Pharma among many other sources)–and now as the baby boomers bring our bodies across middle age we are confronted with –losing our minds.
The facts around women and Alzheimer’s are actually shocking:
- 10 million women either have Alzheimer’s or are caring for someone with it.
- Women constitute about two-thirds of those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and also about 60 percent of the caregivers for those who have it.
- A third of women caregivers are caring 24/7 for a person with Alzheimer’s. Nearly 40 percent say they had no choice in becoming a caregiver.
- The societal impact of Alzheimer’s disease—on government, families and business—totals about $300 billion per year.
- Almost two-thirds of all working caregivers report having to go to work late, leave early or take time off to provide care. Yet they get less support for elder care than they do for child care. So it’s not surprising that nearly half of all women caregivers report high emotional and physical stress.
My mother and I had a tough, very complicated, relationship. She was a woman, who came of age in the 50s, as I say in my dedication to her in my newest book, Baby, You are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars and Theology Before Stonewall. What exactly does it mean to “come of age in the 50s”? I think it means many things—among other things it means/meant coming of age in the Red Scare that was McCarthyism; it means coming of age pre-feminism; it means coming of age when “Rosie” was told to go home and return jobs to the service men coming back from the war. It meant perhaps for many women not getting the social activity that might contribute to deterring Alzheimer’s. Women have not been encouraged to exercise in the not too distant decades…and now they are scared to get enough sleep if it conflicts with the time needed to exercise! (See the blogs I did on women and sleep for this site, starting here) Women’s self- care has come second—that’s a given—we see it in something as basic as women are more sleep deprived than men. Is this lower self care for women part of the reason why women get Alzheimer’s more than men? I don’t know. I’m just asking.
I was very moved by a photo of my mother at her service—of her as a young girl, maybe thirteen. My mother played softball, had a gang of girls she hung out with, went to secretarial school (although she wanted to go to college—she was afraid to leave her parents without someone to care for them—at least that is how I remember the story)—but she did go to secretarial school and worked “outside the home” for a short time. She met my Dad—she wanted ten kids and she had six. We were Irish- Catholic.
She loved Dorothy Day, Simone Weil, wanted to live in a soup kitchen, marched with me in a take back the night rally once, and got up very early most days—four or five a.m.—to write quotes and bits of thought on pieces of paper that she kept…she wanted something. I think when I see that picture of the thirteen year old who would be my mother in the ensuing decade –that young girl wanted something—did she ever get it? I don’t know.
I’m not sure she ever got it. Whatever that thing is we want out of a lived life.
My parents were married for sixty years—my father cared for her at the end of her life and I am grateful for that.
I’m not sure exactly what this blog is about, dear reader. It’s about aging. And feminism. It’s about religion. And birthdays.
Religion: The Catholic Church did my mother no favors. My parent’s marriage was tough and conditions in our house were lower middle class tough—everyone wanted something, it seems, that they were unlikely to get. At one point my mother wanted out and bundled us up and took us to the rectory where she asked the priest what she was to do. He said if she left my father she would never see her children in heaven—and that was forever. This life here was only temporary. He recommended– this man without children or family—that she stay married. In fact, Catholic decree still insists you stay married or face life in hell. This is not a column of judgment—this is a fact. They stayed married and my father loved my mother—and he did care for her through a horrific illness.
Feminism: she couldn’t leave. Aging: we get old. How do we plan for care? And birthdays: what do we want as the years pass by; how do we judge the wishes we make for our future as the candles blow out?
“I want to grow old without facelifts… I want to have the courage to be loyal to the face I’ve made. Sometimes I think it would be easier to avoid old age, to die young, but then you’d never complete your life, would you? You’d never wholly know you.”
― Marilyn Monroe
And Marilyn didn’t “wholly know” the life she “might” have lived. I tell my Gender and Women’s Studies students—if you are lucky, you will get old ,as we discuss The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, Naomi Wolf’s ground breaking work of the early 90s that unfortunately is even truer today. The statistic goes something like this: if a woman spends a half hour with a typical beauty magazine, most of us come away feeling inadequate—and what do we do? My students have no trouble answering this—we buy the products in the magazine. So—why do we read them? It’s a set up, they say. But they also admit that still, in 2014—decades after Wolf unveiled this theory—most women are still caught in “the beauty myth.” You cannot be “beautiful enough” without worrying that it will go away/ be taken away. And if we felt good after reading a beauty magazine, what would we do? I ask my students this and they answer quickly, “We wouldn’t buy anything.” Correct. I say.
“Women may be the one group that grows more radical with age.”
― Gloria Steinem
Aging for women has been about trying not to age in our 20s, 30s, 40s and then in our 50s and 60s we try to age—let us grow old. We are threatened not with the beauty myth per se—but with the sanity scare. Can we keep our minds as we look at our gratefully wrinkled yet clear eyed faces?
This blog has been a beginning meditation on women, and aging and dis-ease/comfort with self. Thank you for taking it with me.
I intend to spend my birthday at a Korean spa (the best ever)—hopefully someone will walk on my back and later I will have dinner with my legally married lesbian wife looking out at the ocean. I will go home to the house we bought –- that I bought as a married woman but independent woman/sole owner—because of our finances at the time/ how we arranged it we labeled it that way. These are all significant facts to me as they are fairly unknown realities to women who “came of age in the 50s.”
We as a group, I believe many women are growing more radical as we age. Religion becomes more spiritual. Feminism is part of our landscape.
Our lives must start to fit those birthday wishes.
Marie Cartier is a teacher, poet, writer, healer, artist, and scholar. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of New Hampshire; an MA in English/Poetry from Colorado State University; an MFA in Theatre Arts (Playwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Film and TV (Screenwriting) from UCLA; and an MFA in Visual Art (Painting/Sculpture) from Claremont Graduate University. She is also a first degree black belt in karate, Shorin-Ryu Shi-Do-Kan Kobayashi style. Ms. Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University.