The Challenges of Ripening Years

BETTY FRIEDAN'S latest book may do for older people what her 1963 bestseller, ``The Feminine Mystique,'' did for the women's movement. Arriving at a time when maturing baby boomers show signs of not tolerating society's negative images of growing old, the book could catalyze fundamental change in our understanding of life's stages.

``The Fountain of Age'' evolves in two interrelated directions. It tries to dispel the putative ``problem'' of aging, while setting the decades of human maturation in the context of their distinctive potential. Combining her personal search for alternatives to society's punitive myths about age with numerous success stories and the latest scientific research, Friedan has produced a volume that is exceptionally readable, despite its considerable bulk.

Friedan says that contemporary society fosters a misplaced though sincere compassion, dictating that the elderly have to be protected. ``The Feminine Mystique'' was motivated by her wish to rid women of the post-World War II attitude that they needed to be guarded from the hazards of full societal participation. ``The Fountain of Age'' was similarly inspired by Friedan's observation that those in the last third of the human life cycle are routinely judged to need special protection from life's challenges.

Friedan does not urge readers to reject or defy age. Instead, she counsels awareness of the social structures and values that would try to push people out of an active life after the age of 60.

In a society that associates productivity with youth, age and growth often seem contradictory. The emphasis on youth misleadingly implies that humans reach complete maturation early in adulthood. It prevents people from seeing adulthood as a period of continuous development.

Friedan argues that an image of old people as weak, infirm, and dull-witted masks the actuality that most people live vitally in all of life's stages. Seeing maturity as a defect, the absence of youth, rather than as a unique period in the life cycle, narrows one's vista, she contends.

Friedan presents fresh scientific information supporting the view that a decline in various capacities with age is neither predictable nor universal. Without doubt, renouncing the stereotypes of aging and maintaining purposeful mental activity that incorporates real choices are crucial to a maturing person's vital longevity.

Thirty years ago in ``The Feminine Mystique,'' Friedan outlined women's dilemma in a chapter called ``The Problem That Has No Name.'' Fighting the feminine mystique became synonymous with the early years of the women's movement in the United States. In ``The Fountain of Age'' Friedan makes an ironic parallel. Instead of tracing a hidden predicament, she discloses adulthood's disguised ``strengths that have no name.'' Chief among these attributes is the capacity for people to define their own development in the face of debilitating societal characterizations.

Like Betty Friedan, Tracy Kidder is interested in revealing the concealed strengths and quandaries of mature adults. But he chooses to focus solely on the sequestered life led by aging people in an extended-care facility.

The characters in Kidder's new book, ``Old Friends,'' find it difficult to escape dependency and make consequential decisions in their nursing home, Linda Manor. His story, the narrated result of his interviews and observations in a western Massachusetts nursing home, does for that experience what he did for elementary education in his 1989 bestseller, ``Among Schoolchildren.''

The difference in tone between the approaches of Friedan and Kidder is profound. Throughout her book, Friedan is optimistic and confident that positive change in age stereotyping can occur. Her study concludes with Friedan convincingly exulting that she is fully herself at her age and that she has never felt so free.

In contrast, however adaptable, nurturing, patient, and charitable they are, Kidder's ``old friends'' at Linda Manor have about them an air of resignation, not liberty. Struggle as they do to shape what remains of their private domain, like food, television shows, and clothing, they are forcefully defined by the institution as people needing care.

Unlike his other books, conceived around the progressive development of, respectively, a computer system, a fifth grade, and a house, ``Old Friends'' has a static quality that comes not simply from the nursing home ambience, but also from Kidder's perception that ``successful aging'' eludes many Americans.

Nevertheless, Kidder's keen attention to the details offers insights. Through the experience of his principal interviewees, Lou Freed and Joe Torchio, Kidder depicts the nuances of having an unfamiliar roommate, investing in new social relationships, and relating to one's family.

The book has humor, candor, and an ear for language. When Eleanor, one of the residents, voluntarily leaves Linda Manor for a situation in which she will have more self-determination, the book's melancholic atmosphere lifts for a moment, and the reader senses that Lou and Joe might themselves be considering more beneficial alternatives. Still, the arc of the book is not as taut as it might have been.

Despite their obvious differences, Betty Friedan and Tracy Kidder have similar goals. Each uncovers the potential richness of growing older.

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