A New Stage, Not the Same Old Story : Personhood: Betty Friedan, who'll talk to the AARP convention in Anaheim Wednesday, sees a barrier she calls 'the Age Mystique.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Feminist Betty Friedan has a suggestion for the American Assn. of Retired Persons, which begins its three-day national convention here today: It should change its name to the American Assn. of Resurgent Persons.

With people living longer than ever before, Friedan said, Americans are undergoing a "paradigm shift," a move away from a negative model of old age to a more positive one.

So forget the terms retired persons, the elderly and senior citizens.

"They all have a connotation of something different, something not life, not human, not person, " said Friedan, 73. "I'm talking about the personhood of people all through life, and what we now think of (old) age is another stage of life to be lived."

People in the future, she maintains, won't retire--they'll leave one thing to do another, whether it be in the public or private sector, for pay or as volunteers. Further, she envisions "whole new patterns" in the way people view the important areas of their lives in the later years--from love to work to play.

But there's still a formidable barrier to universal enlightenment: Friedan calls it "the Age Mystique."

"The Age Mystique is more distorted, obsolete, pernicious and pervasive than the Feminine Mystique, which kept us from seeing the reality of women," said Friedan, whose 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique" served as one of the catalysts for the women's movement. "We have to move from the accepted view of age as a programmed decline from youth to terminal senility and therefore only as a problem for society.

"And when we break through that Age Mystique and look at this new stage in terms of its possibilities, then everything is changed. And choice is every bit as important in this new third of life as it was in the earlier stage of life."

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Friedan, who is scheduled to speak at the convention on Wednesday, will undoubtedly find a receptive audience for her message.

The gathering, which is open to the public, is expected to draw up to 30,000 people over the next three days. Conventioneers will be able to view more than 200 exhibits, including of cars and RVs, fitness products, clothing, exercise equipment, travel and information from service providers.

But the big draw will be the more than two dozen educational sessions featuring a host of nationally known figures speaking on issues of interest to those who have reached the AARP target age of 50 and over: everything from substance abuse and Alzheimer's disease to patient rights and good nutrition.

That's in addition to "Firing Line" host William F. Buckley Jr. speaking on talk show politics, Dr. C. Everett Koop on health care trends, "Wall Street Week" host Louis Rukeyser on the economy, former U.S. Atty. Gen. Elliot Richardson on the world today and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the environment.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer will be on hand today to participate in a panel on "Love, Sexuality and Aging." And America's best-known psychosexual therapist has good news.

"Older people can be sexually active if they are healthy until a very late stage in life," the enthusiastic Dr. Ruth said in her familiar German accent. "They might not be able to engage in all the positions--they might not be able to hang from a chandelier--but older people need to touch and be touched."

Speaking by car phone during a limo ride to a speaking engagement in New York City last week, Westheimer said that "scientifically validated data" negates the perception that sexuality ceases with old age.

"That's exactly why I'm flying to Anaheim," said the 65-year-old Westheimer. "It's important to give good information, especially in this youth-oriented country of ours because now we are going to have a graying of America."

Indeed. It barely seems possible, but the first baby-boomers will turn 50 in 1996. And they'll soon be followed by 77 million fellow boomers.

Friedan, who says she overcame denial of aging while writing her recent book, "The Fountain of Age," views the influx of the former "don't trust anyone over 30" crowd this way:

"The baby boomers will be the troops that make the great social revolution at the end of the century. And just as that generation made the new music in the youth movement of the 1960s, in the 1990s they will make the new songs of age."

In fact, said AARP executive director Horace Deets, the number of Americans 50 and over will double from about 66 million today to about 130 million in the next 35 years.

Deets, needless to say, agrees with Friedan's contention that Americans must change their negative view of aging.

"We are living longer, but we also are more healthy and active on average than ever before," he said. "I think we need to get away from the stereotype that says aging equals infirmity and decline. We've got to see life as a continuum."

Deets, who is 56, noted that when people turn 50 they receive birthday cards "that imply they're 'over the hill' and other such insults. In reality, when people turn 50 they have more than half their adult life ahead of them."

The normal life expectancy in this country is about 75, he said, "so at 50 you've got 30 years of adult life behind you, but you're going to actually have more than 25 more" years ahead.

Actually, few Americans turn 50 without receiving a card from Deets inviting them to join AARP.

For an $8 annual membership fee per household, members receive Modern Maturity, a bimonthly magazine. (With 22 million copies, it has the largest circulation of any magazine in the country.)

AARP also offers educational material--from pamphlets and booklets to audio and videotapes--on a variety of subjects ranging from retirement planning to long-term health care.

About 300,000 AARP volunteers nationwide also serve as instructors for mature driving classes and help people with retirement planning, mid-life career changes, finances and overcoming the loss of a loved one. This year about 30,000 volunteers, in conjunction with the IRS, helped nearly 2 million older individuals fill out their tax returns.

AARP is a nonpartisan organization--"Given the diversity of our membership, it has to be that way," Deets said--but volunteers represent members' interests at both the state and federal level.

"What we do is provide information to our members as to what is happening on the legislative front," Deets said. "We urge members to communicate directly with their elected officials."

Begun in 1958 as an outgrowth of the National Retired Teachers Assn., AARP had more than 1 million members in 1967 when founder Ethel Percy Andrus--a Los Angeles educator--died. It now boasts 33 million members. That's about 50% of all Americans age 50 and over. The association's name, however, is a misnomer: About 37% of its members are still working full or part time.

Deets said the organization's growth is the result of its being responsive to the diverse needs and interests of people over 50. "Most people join to get information about dealing with their retirement--or they're planning for retirement--or they want information on aging, consumer issues and health."

Deets said AARP is looking at how to respond to the growing and increasingly diverse population of Americans 50 and over. In the meantime, he said, "we have an awful lot on our plate already."

The main issues facing older Americans, he said, are health care, jobs ("there's still age discrimination in the workplace"), economic security and consumer issues such as housing, transportation, safety and crime.

Those who attend the convention, Deets said, "will get a sense of the scope of activities that AARP offers, and an important component of that is older people: Volunteers and employees represent a tremendous resource for the country."

And in the future, he said, "it isn't just that there's going to be increasing demand for resources, but there will be an increasing pool of educated, talented and experienced people who can--either through the work force or through volunteer activities--be an extremely productive segment of our society."

Like Friedan, Deets doesn't care for the term senior citizens.

"There are too many variables to comfortably label such a big group of people," he said. "And perhaps it's just as well we don't. If we can put a label on something, we tend to stereotype it.

"We basically are trying to get people to understand that life is not easily divided into youth, middle age and old age--that it's more of a continuum than a series of snapshots, and what your capabilities are at any given age are often going to be affected by your health and the opportunities that are presented to you."

In other words, he said, "age is not necessarily going to be the barrier."

Profile of Older Americans

A look at Americans age 65 and older in the United States. Information is from 1992, the most recent year available. Figures may not add to 100% due to rounding.

Ethnic Composition White: 86% Black: 8 Latino: 4 Asian: 2

Income

Families Non-families Less than $20,000 36% 81% $20,000-$29,999 24 10 $30,000-$39,999 15 4 $40,000-$49,999 8 2 $50,000 and more 16 3

Housing Status Owners: 77% Renters: 23

Living Arrangements

Men Women With spouse 74% 40% With other relatives 7 16 Alone or with non-relatives 19 44

Marital Status

Men Women Married 76% 41% Widowed 15 48 Never married 4 5 Divorced 5 6

Age*

Men Women 65-69 36% 31% 70-74 28 26 75-79 20 21 80-84 11 14 85 and older 5 8

Fast Facts -- 12% had a bachelor's or higher degree. -- About 3.6 million or 12% worked or were actively seeking work. -- About 833,000 or 24%, were self-employed. -- 29% assessed their health as fair or poor.* -- About 80% of older homeowners owned their homes free and clear. *

* 1991 figures

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 1993 Statistical Abstract of the United States

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