The plot is set in motion when an intrusive neighbor, Mrs.Simonds, visits them one day and decides they must be moved to an institution.As we enter into an era in which most of our citizens will be elderly (what one writer refers to as a “demographic denouement”), it is useful to reflect on the first time mainstream American culture responded to the “graying” of the population and to consider one imaginative response to the dominant expectations for old age as it became a scripted stage of life. The term “over the hill” first appeared in a poem on the cover of Harper’s Weekly in 1871.
Representing a middle-class ideology that expects old women to be stationary and “comfortable,” Mrs.
Simonds’s intervention exposes how benevolence directed toward elderly people often masks an anxiety about unfulfilled gender and age norms.
For the remainder of this essay, I turn to a story by Mary Wilkins Freeman to demonstrate possibilities for reading old age as a contested site, a politicized identity to be rigorously explored in its own right, rather than simply a metaphor for obsolescence or a marker of nostalgia.
Although it was written more than a hundred years ago, Freeman’s work anticipates our contemporary culture’s obsession with “successful aging” and self-sufficiency and offers a vision of old age in which dependence and debility can be recognized as oppositional. This pamphlet, an advertisement for Shaker Extract of Roots, explains that “old age is unlovely” and juxtaposes young and older visions of individuals. 1890) promises that Shaker Extract of Roots will counteract the physical signs of aging.
” a variety of well-known writers, including Julia Ward Howe, Mary E.
Wilkins (Freeman), and Rebecca Harding Davis, almost unilaterally refused to answer the question as posed.
The sisters, in other words, must be relocated not because they are unhappy or in danger but rather because they are too openly old and frail.
The narrator notes that “the struggle to persuade them to abandon their tottering old home for a better was a terrible one.” Mrs.
Simonds’s eloquence, her plea, her “struggle to persuade” and “convince” them, and her appropriation of the term “comfortable” highlights the force of her intervention. Simonds interpellates these women into the physical and ideological space of old age; she must teach them to see themselves as needy and elderly.
The very use of the term “Home” indicates the extent to which the emergence of age ideology in the late nineteenth-century involved the co-optation of discourse and the sentimentalization of old age in order to render it powerless and acquiescent.