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Men’s Challenges with Aging: Blame John Wayne

Men’s Challenges with Aging: Blame John Wayne

By Dave Price

If you are or know a male Baby Boomer who is having an extremely hard time aging, there’s a good chance that the Waynes – or more specifically, John Wayne and Bruce “Batman” Wayne – may be greatly to blame.

While it’s true that the idea of what exactly is a man has been changing over recent decades, much of the sense of masculinity in the mid-20th Century was established and reinforced through the codes of western movies and their stars such as John Wayne and the behavior of then-contemporary fictional heroes such as Batman and James Bond.

Here’s a look at five of those you-must-be-this-to-be-a-real-man concepts which were integral parts of the portrayal of the alpha male embedded in the entertainment of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the early shaping decades for Boomer men.

Men should be physically strong

There are many reasons for this now-disputed, but once absolute, claim. The protector role men have assumed since the beginning of humankind is a prime driver for this characteristic. Young boys quickly learn that they will be mocked for being sissies if they don’t play sports, participate in outdoor activities, or engage in fighting if provoked. In fact, it is still thought in some circles that a strong man is a more masculine man simply because he is further from being a more feminine one.

The problem of physical strength in aging – No matter how in-shape you are, it’s virtually impossible for you to be as strong at age 65 as you were at age 30. This is a matter of physiology. Muscle mass declines with age, therefore physical strength will also lessen. If you feel that strength is a prime determiner in your masculinity, you’re setting yourself up for automatic problems in your later years.

Men should be risk-takers

The stories of our 20th Century fictional heroes reinforce the idea that courage is a requirement to be a man. Even today, young boys dread being called “chicken”. A recent review in the Journal of Men’s Studies showed that men are much more likely than women to engage in the top-30 risky behaviors that can lead to serious illness or death like smoking, heavy drinking, drug abuse, speeding, not wearing seat belts, blindly following peers, or having unprotected sex. There is also the much-believed idea that desirable women are most attracted to “bad boys” — a.k.a. risk takers.

The problem with risk taking in aging – While much damage from excessive risk taking occurs prior to a person’s later years, continued risk takers often refuse medical care that, if accepted, would lead to better health. Some of that aversion comes from a fear of what health problems will be discovered from previous years of risk taking. In that view, it is far better not to know than to know because you don’t have to deal with negative conditions you don’t realize you have.

A man must work or he is not a man

For most men, feelings of self-worth come from a sense of achievement and being recognized in the work place more than any other area of their life. Also, many contend a man should have a well-thought-of job that pays well and that job should be his highest priority. Therefore, all outside interests including marriage, parenting, and hobbies should be sacrificed for upward work advancement and the rewards that it brings.

The problem with work in aging – In today’s work world with its layoffs, shutdowns, mergers, and relocations, there are few jobs that are guaranteed. Of course, that means many men are being stripped from their work before they are ready to leave. But there can also be no-more-work problems with men who chose to retire on their own. If a man judges himself solely on work achievements and is no longer working, he will probably experience some combination of perceived personal loss of status, influence, and self-worth when they leave employment.

A man is always independent and never asks for help

This is such a widely-held attitude that it even has its own clichéd rule: a real man never asks for directions; he finds his way on the road the same way he finds his way in his life – independently on his own. Experts believe this reluctance to involve others stems from masculine fears of appearing weak and vulnerable. In its extreme, this idea posits that it is better to fail in self-reliance than to succeed by sacrificing control.

The problem with not asking for help in aging – Doing this is a perfect recipe for disaster. Aging increases weakness and vulnerability. Complete self-reliance is no longer a reality. In general, the longer you live, the more help you need from family, friends, and the medical community. Of course, they can’t help if you don’t allow them to.

A man doesn’t ever show or share his emotions

Think John Wayne. Think Batman. Think James Bond. What words or phrases come to mind. Tough. Stoic. Savior. Laconic. Tenacious. Indestructible. Loner. Never complaining. Keep all feelings to yourself. In fact, it is as if these characters live by outdated emotional clichés such as “big boys don’t cry “or “just take it like a man”.

The problem with not sharing emotions in aging – While it’s true that many men are programmed to ignore or deny their feelings which can cause problems all their lives, this continued method poses even more danger in later life. The risk of isolation, alienation, loss, depression, and other such negative feelings usually increase with age. While all of these can lead to severe physical problems, they begin as emotional issues. If you have spent your entire life ignoring or denying emotions, it is difficult to reach out and seek professional help. In fact, a 2016 meta-analysis in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found that older men with the most severe mental and emotional problems were the least inclined to seek treatment.

Of course, for Baby Boomers, that reluctance to demonstrate emotion or talk about feelings shouldn’t come as a surprise.

I mean what man, once an impressionable young boy searching for role models, wants to disappoint John Wayne or Batman?

Why that just wouldn’t be manlyright?

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Dave Price operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on 3 topics – the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging, especially those affecting men. A former journalist and educator, Price is researching 2 books, one on the status of classic rock music and its songs, performers, and fans today and the other a DC guidebook designed especially for Baby Boomers.