Growing old together

New stats show men are catching up to women in life expectancy. So why aren't older women celebrating?


Sarah Elizabeth Richards
May 1, 2006 3:45PM (UTC)

In Sunday's New York Times, Kate Zernike reported that the difference between men and women's life expectancies has narrowed to just five years, according to figures released this month by the National Center for Health Statistics. In fact, the future is looking so rosy for men that in 50 years, theyre likely to be on this earth as long as ladies.

Zernike's piece mentions the potential upsides to this trend - as in, like, having your male loved ones around longer. Just imagine: more emotional support, companionship, the shared cable bill, the rides to the doctor! (This is especially true financially, since widows may lose their husband's often-bigger Social Security or pension checks.) But it also makes the case that this new longevity may not be such a good deal for women, especially those who are looking forward to a few years of me time."

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Even though gender roles are changing rapidly, many older women still take on more housework and food prep, she writes. For them, more man years means more meals to make, and many want a break. Zernike offers this gem from a Connecticut woman in her 70s who answered her husbands question of whether they were ready to move to an assisted-living facility with "You've had assisted living for 40 years."

Then Zernike quotes experts who say that women don't need men as much as men need women and that they fare better emotionally when the other dies. (Thats why men are supposedly four times as likely as women to remarry after the death of a spouse.) "Women are very helpful for men," Zernike quotes John Gray of "Mars, Venu'" fame as saying. "Men are not very helpful for women as spouses." The article does concede that although older women have better social networks and more sexual drive, having a guy around might be useful for the financial support. Gee, what man wouldnt feel appreciated?

Perhaps there are older women who wouldn't mind a few years of living out "Golden Girls" plotlines. They might wish they had more cash, but -- darn it -- it sure is nice just to take the bus to Atlantic City with the girls once in a while. But Zernike's article completely ignores the point that many widows are forced to become independent out of necessity -- and that many, of course, wish their husbands were still around. It also gives the impression that older men are simply dead weight looking for a caretaker. None of these geriatric gender stereotypes are helpful.

Broadsheet welcomes the news that guys will be here longer! In the meantime, here's hoping that the men who are fed and tended to by dutiful wives learn to become more independent, too. Then we can all enjoy one another now -- and for many more years to come.


Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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