The (Old) World According to Betty White

What was her secret? Simply being a fine role model of elderhood.

What's your relationship with aging?

As the entertainment world was preparing to celebrate Betty White’s 100th birthday on January 17, she passed away on New Year’s Eve, to the shock of millions of fans. The sadness was palpable, and not only among older adults or even middle-aged people. The reaction among young people –– many of whom weren’t yet born when she starred in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “The Golden Girls” but likely knew her from reruns and/or “Hot in Cleveland" –– was quite emotional. And surprising to me.


Her social media reach was impressive. On the day she died, she had 1.6 million followers on Twitter, 1.8 million followers on Instagram, and 4.5 million followers on Facebook. On New Year’s Day, NBC re-aired a “Saturday Night Live” from 2010 that White hosted as the result of a Facebook campaign in which nearly 500,000 fans petitioned the show to recruit her.


As a 69-year-old who sometimes questions how appreciated (or not) people like me are for having lived two or more decades beyond middle-age, I’ve been fascinated by the scope of White’s fan base, a significant number of whom are one-third her age.


What was her secret? Surely no one could claim that she was denying her age or devaluing herself for being of advanced years. In fact, she embraced those years every step of the way. And it clearly showed. The world according to Betty White was a place where being old should be accepted unabashedly as par for the course –– in a game way longer than 18 holes.


And so, for me, Betty White was a fine role model of elderhood. Here’s why:


She was always herself. A queen of quips, she had a great sense of humor, especially about her own life (to see what I mean, Google “Betty White quotes”). People may have been shocked or even entertained by an old woman’s ability to swear like a sailor, revel in innuendo, or tell sexual jokes, but White didn’t adopt those traits to appear young and hip. She behaved that way throughout her life. In such cases, others’ reactions simply revealed a biased belief in age-appropriateness and a need to embrace “old person” stereotypes.


She was generous and compassionate. A strong ally of the LGBTQ+ community, White was best known for her advocacy for the rights of animals and humanitarian work on their behalf. While most of us older adults are not lucky enough to have White’s financial wealth, we can still be inspired by her efforts to improve the lives of others and find our own ways to do the same.


She continued to work at what she loved. In the entertainment business, it’s more than a challenge for women to remain employable in middle age, let alone in their 60s and beyond. And in the rest of the business world, women’s “sell-by date” usually occurs a lot earlier. White always acknowledged her luck in continuing to be sought after for her talents. Nevertheless, many of us older adults, men as well as women, who need or want to keep working can keep her in mind as an example of how skill and experience, rather than age, should determine employability.


She insisted on staying relevant. Whether it was on the radio, TV, or in movies, whether she was doing a Snickers commercial for Super Bowl XLIV, appearing at a WWE wrestling match, or rapping with Luciana in the video “I’m Still Hot,” she engaged with people of all ages. She was open to using her talents in all kinds of opportunities. That’s an attitude to cultivate, no matter one’s age.


Betty White’s passing is more than the loss of an exceptional comedy star and humanitarian. As I see it, her greatest contribution as a cultural icon is the way in which she defined being old in the world: never apologetically, but rather, always brazenly joyous.


Today, if I could, I’d ask her advice about what we older adults should tell ourselves and others as we hopefully add decades to our lives.

“I’m me. I’m here. Deal with it!” she’d probably say, with a wide smile and twinkle in her eyes.


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Photo: David Shankbone; Betty White at the Time 100 gala in 2010

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