WHEN older women appear in movies and on television, they often portray characters filled with vitality, humor, and intelligence.
On TV, there's not a rocking chair in sight for the slightly glamorous stars of "Golden Girls" or the intrepid Angela Lansbury on "Murder She Wrote." And in movies, the 60-something Joanne Woodward and octogenarians Katharine Hepburn and the late Jessica Tandy have given new meaning to the phrase "aging gracefully." Even in print, celebrities put a positive spin on being not-young. Think of Gloria Steinem, insisting that this is what 60 looks like, and Elizabeth Taylor, talking about her marriage to a younger man.
But when media attention turns to ordinary people in real life, women of a certain age become disconcertingly invisible. Despite their burgeoning numbers - women account for nearly 60 percent of the 32 million Americans over 65 - press coverage of them, when it exists at all, tends to center around stereotypes of passivity. Tales of incompetence feature elderly widows who get scammed by con artists. And articles on illness spotlight such currently hot topics as whether older women need estrogen.
The only magazine targeted specifically to midlife and older women, Lear's, was originally subtitled "For the woman who wasn't born yesterday." Yet editor Frances Lear soon backed away from her original determination to use older models, crow's feet and all. She also removed the subtitle and lowered her target audience from 40 to 35. Last year the magazine ceased publication.
The news is hardly more encouraging on the policy front. Every spring for the past 10 years, the Older Women's League has published a study on an issue of concern - everything from caregiving to housing to workplace prejudice. But after a tiny ripple of publicity, these reports are forgotten.
Now all that may be changing. At Brandeis University, a new research institute, the National Policy and Resource Center on Women and Aging, will address such largely ignored issues as financial security, housing, and health care. The center, designed to move research on older women's issues into the mainstream, is sponsored by the US Department of Health and Human Services and funded with a three-year, $1.1 million federal grant.
Two new reports underscore the need for efforts like this to improve the visibility and status of women who weren't born yesterday. Of particular importance is their economic well-being.
Last month, in a national survey by Yankelovich Partners for Phoenix Home Life Mutual Insurance Company, nearly 500 women described their financial hopes for the future. They anticipate retiring at 61 and living for 23 years in retirement. They estimate that they will need $45,000 annually for a comfortable retirement. More than 60 percent also say they want to travel.
Yet too often these dreams don't square with reality, except perhaps in movies. To meet those needs, the Yankelovich survey shows, these women will need a nest egg of more than $700,000. On average, they face a retirement income gap of $260,000.
Even more sobering is a second study, the latest Older Women's League report, "The Path to Poverty," analyzing women's retirement income. It shows that 1 in 4 older women is poor or near poor. In 1993, women 65 and older had a median annual income of only $8,500 - just 57 percent of the $15,000 median income of their male counterparts. Women are also half as likely as men to receive a pension. Those who do receive half as much.
Image and reality check - trying to tell the difference seems to be one of the main jobs of journalism these days. But for women struggling to play financial catch-up before they retire, the difference between women's fiction and women's fact is more than theoretical. These new studies are early warnings that come none too soon. The message is: If the real-life Golden Girls of tomorrow are to enjoy retirements that are anything near golden, they must, even more than men, start their game plans now.