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Dick and Jane Grow Up

Dick and Jane have reached elderhood. What scenarios are they living or want to live?


See Spot run. Run, Spot, run!

If you were in elementary school in the 1930s through ’70s, these words probably evoke memories of sitting quietly at desks in neat rows and reading books such as Fun with Dick and Jane, whose main (white) characters reflected gender-constrained norms. My strongest memory of a Dick and Jane story involved Jane in the kitchen with Mother, wearing dresses and tidy aprons and making an apple pie, while Dick was in the backyard with Father building a doghouse for Spot.

As a child, I was bothered by that story. Sure, I liked cooking and baking, but I also liked building things, and somehow this plot line, which didn’t include Dick and Jane participating together in both activities, seemed to tell me that I could choose only the one assigned to females. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my frustration. There must have been lots of budding female architects and male chefs (of all races) who felt the same way.

So maybe it was more than coincidental that in the 1970s I became a writer of educational materials for children. In those burgeoning Women’s Liberation and Civil Rights days, elementary school textbooks deliberately began chipping away at traditionally monolithic gender and racial roles. We writers were creating multiethnic, multiracial stories about female airplane pilots and male nurses. The pedagogical theory driving our work was that educational materials should not only reflect the reality of the times but also help promote positive changes to that reality. Our approach was to mold young minds by offering them plots, characters, and attitudes we wanted to see incorporated into everyday life. Slowly, the barriers to what was possible for a girl or boy to be or do started to fall. New paradigms were created for working and living in community.

Dick and Jane were growing up.

Now Dick and Jane have reached elderhood. What scenarios are they living or want to live? In what ways are they being held back by the restrictive stories that society insists on telling about them? And how can we revise those stories in order to change social attitudes and expectations about aging?

First, we have to deal with language, because the words we choose define the who, what, where, when, why, and how of any story.

Look, Jane, look. You can look.

Dick can play. See Dick play.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard young children express themselves using such stilted, oversimplified syntax. Perhaps the same is true of the stilted, outdated language used to describe older adults. We can’t even agree on terms that depict aging status. “Senior citizens”? “The elderly”? Most baby boomers reject these terms as ageist and patronizing. And what about describing active older adults as “spry”? Just like calling a young woman “perky” or a young man “bold,” applying such a term trivializes age by implying that a proactive, engaged person in his or her later years is an exception and not the more realistic rule.

If we can’t agree on language that describes aging, can we at least agree on the kinds of activities older adults can and should be encouraged and expected to do? Just as I bristled at the implication that I shouldn’t be allowed to build a doghouse, I reject the premise that as an older adult I shouldn’t be allowed to work as long as I want at any job I am capable of doing, that my opinion shouldn’t be sought on matters of civic policy, that my time as a volunteer and my knowledge acquired from experience aren’t as valuable as those of persons decades younger.

I bristle, too, that as an older adult, I am assumed to be needy (don’t we all, at every age, need things from society?) but not also assumed to be a source for providing for the needs of others of all generations.

Whether our culture accepts it or not, the reality is that older adults are here to stay –– for a lot longer than did previous elder generations –– and that we still have much to contribute to all aspects of our economic, political, and cultural experience.

See Dick lead a county arts commission.

See Jane create a small business.

See Dick and Jane take part in all aspects of life.

And thanks to them, see our society thrive.


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