The invisible 15,000,000

They are called the fastest-growing segment of the American population -- and among the poorest. They are 15 million women of 65 and older, 60 percent of an over65 population in which women were outnumbered by men as recently as 1930. At least one out of three of them lives alone. They are the "new demographic frontier," in one partisan's phrase, and the subject of a recent conference in Des Moines preparatory to next year's White House conference on Aging.

It should not take conference after conference for the United States to ease the disadvantages and "invisibility" of older women -- to ensure justice in divorce and inheritance laws, for example; to recognize both the hardearned value of homemaking and the need for educational and employment opportunities for women in later life.

But society can do only so much. The differences in outlook among older women even under current discriminatory conditions show that a great deal depends on the individual. All the new opportunities in the world will mean little without the attitudes to resist the stereotypes of loneliness and uselessness, challenge the limiting myths about age, and take constructive advantages of whatever resources are available.

This all may be easy to say to the widow with her sense of loss, the working woman required to retire, the ailing aunt whose activities are restricted. It is not so easy to hear when standing in their shoes. They need not only the prayers of friends and families but the practical manifestation of a love that sees the inner person who is not getting aged at all, and who will not -- when supported by mutually reinforcing positive attitudes held by herself and those around her.

The solution for everyone may not be that of the school system in Harbor Springs, Mich., which is bringing older women (and men) into its daily school life, encouraging their assistance is teaching -- or playing in the school band. But you get the idea. The elderly have much to offer others as well as themselves.

The growing challenge presented by the needs of older women should not be neglected in local communities or at the national conference or aging next year. But the urgency of the present cry on their behalf ought to help spur the imaginative and innovative genius of America to enhance the lives of all older citizens.

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