Barbara Rose Brooker has never let aging define her or limit her choices in life. In fact, she’s among the rare individuals who have made it work for instead of against her. And now, at age 80, she’s taking on a new quest: stamping out ageism.
“Aging well is not about Botox or looking younger. It’s about spirit, empowerment, and attitude,” Brooker says. “I’m tired of age rage, age segregation, and the fear of aging.”
Making Lemonade From Lemons
When she was 40, divorced and a single mother of two teenage girls, Brooker went back to college, ignoring her friends’ admonitions to get a husband and a real estate license—in that order.
At age 50, she got an MFA in Creative Writing, but was denied a permanent teaching position. “They said I was too old to be tenured,” Brooker recalls. She teaches a writing class now at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at San Francisco University, which offers discussion groups and courses for adults age 50 and older on a wide range of topics, including “Crime Rates, Public Policy and Manipulation Through Fear” and “French Short Stories of the Late 19th and 20th Centuries.”
“In our current anti-age society, after turning 60, we’re supposed to retire and play Bingo and not pursue new dreams,” she says.
But Brooker was too busy for Bingo. At that age, she began writing a weekly column, “Suddenly Sixty,” for a local newspaper. “The topic was always ageism—sociologically and physiologically,” she says. But when a new, younger editor took over the reins at the paper, the column was canned.
The Boomer Hottie Movement
By then, Brooker was entering her seventh decade—and was feeling the stultifying effects of age discrimination. “One day I said to my daughter: ‘I am so sick of all these people treating me like a second class citizen because I’m in my 70s. I feel like a Boomer Hottie’.” The label stuck, inspiring her to launch a website, Boomerhottie.com, on which she implores people to join the Boomer Hottie Movement by starting up a local chapter.
“It’s just a phrase, but I really do believe we’re all able to maintain our spirits and liveliness. They say when you’re 70 or 80, you should be “age appropriate.’ I hate that phrase. I think you should strive to be inappropriate,” she says. “These days, 70 is the new 40. It’s a time not to hide your age, but to go forward, not backward—to reinvent yourself, to write that book, to find true love.”
Brooker has accomplished nearly all that—though still struggles with the true love part. But she has turned even that challenge into an opportunity.
At age 73, tired of the surprises inherent in the nascent online dating scene, Brooker wrote The Viagra Diaries. It’s a novel chronicling the life and near-loves of Anny Applebaum, who dares to break the rules of “appropriateness” at the age of 70 by striving to find meaningful work and love—including sex.
Mainstream publishers weren’t interested in publishing her book at first. “They all told me: ‘Seventy is a hard sell. No one wants to read about old people,’ ” Brooker says. So she self-published the tome—to immediate public cheers. “Men and women from all over the country sent emails about how they identified with my 70-year-old protagonist and her struggles to pursue a career and love,” she says.
The critical acclaim caused Simon and Schuster to have a change of heart; it then published The Viagra Diaries under its Gallery Books imprint, and it was translated and took root in far-flung locales including Holland, Spain, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Poland, Taiwan, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.
Brooker followed that book just a few months later by another with a title that poses the question only a Boomer Hottie could ask: Should I Sleep in His Dead Wife’s Bed? Described as “saucy” and by adjectives even spicier, that novel caught the eyes and minds of regular folks in addition to a few luminaries, who hailed it as funny, brave—and meaningful.
Singer/choreographer/dancer Paula Abdul enthused: “This book is important to read for creative women over 50 who ignore ageism and try to make a difference in the arts.”
And this year Brooker self-published another book, There’s Something Wrong With All of Them, which again chronicles the quests of Anny Applebaum, now 78, and still searching for love and struggling with sexism. A heavy dose of humor mercifully keeps the struggle from seeming too sad, though. As one Amazon reviewer wrote: “I almost spit out my Starbucks laughing so hard.”
Marching Out the Message
But not all is mirthful in the battle. “Age segregation has got to change,” Brooker says. “It’s sad to be set apart by numbers.”
As an attempt to break down that barrier, in 2010 she produced the first Age March in San Francisco — an event aimed at shining the light on age discrimination and helping people of all ages feel comfortable with the aging process and their places in it. It was a success by all lights, as men, women, and dogs marched down the street carrying signs and banners celebrating their ages.
The second march was held the following year in Los Angeles. It was a tougher sell there, in a locale known for its emphasis on being ever young and staying that way. “Boy, was that a different experience,” she recalls. “You couldn’t even get anyone to think about an Age March.” Some of the actresses she had befriended there candidly told her they would never work again if they told the truth about their ages.
The third Age March was held last December in San Francisco. Led by a marching band, more than 100 people strutted through the center of a crowded retail section of the city behind an Age March banner, many carrying signs proudly proclaiming their ages. Startled shoppers and shopkeepers clamored out to see what the ruckus was about, many of them joining in the march down the street.
“My dream is that someone will come along and help make it into a national phenomenon,” Brooker says. “Dreams come true. Anything is possible at any age.”