Strolling down Disease Alley at the AARP Expo at the Washington Convention Center, I feel ever more justified in my decision to keep ignoring the dozens of membership cards the nation's most persistent advocacy group started sending me more than a year ago.
Eager salespeople approach me with offers to measure my bone density, check my blood pressure, find out if my hearing, vision, balance or memory have begun to tank. You name the malady and a government agency, a charitable foundation and a slew of profiteers have set up booths here to hawk information, fear, advice and giveaways.
Whoever mapped out the exhibit hall at this past week's AARP meeting had a fine time collecting many of the disease booths in one cluster, including a row that leads from heart and lung to muscle deterioration, to the across-the-aisle rivals promoting alternative medicines and warning against dietary supplements, and on to epilepsy, deafness and, finally, John Reed and Celi Clark, who at least have the smarts to offer free Snickers bars.
People don't so much stop and chat with Reed and Clark as sort of wander by, pause and scurry on. The cheerful duo represent the National Funeral Directors Association, and they have no illusions about ever being quite as popular a stop as, say, the Wii demonstration or the free massage area.
"Typically, they do their first pass and do a double-take," says Clark, who has the unenviable job of handling PR for the funeral directors. "Second pass, they steal a piece of candy. Third pass, they determine that we're not measuring them, and then they ask their question."
Which often has something to do with cremation vs. burial. But what I learned from Clark and Reed, a funeral director in West Virginia, and from many others at the AARP bash, is that, as Clark puts it, "Being 50 means something different now."
Diseases and pharmaceutical companies and the aches and pains industry — I never dreamed there could be so many products aimed at making your feet feel better — are all an integral part of an AARP show, but some very clever marketing folks have spent a long time figuring out how to make a buck off the country's big bulge of aging boomers. They have managed to convince many people in their 50s that it's okay to think about being old, okay to take those first steps into the world of wheelchair lifts, grab bars, advance directives and, oh my, colonoscopy prep that comes in a pill instead of a massive gallon jug of vile liquid.
So yes, this is a hall where you really find accordion salesmen and "foot elevators" (they sure look like pillows to me), but it's also where Magic Johnson (like me, he's within a year of hitting 50) and Gene "If it's too loud, you're too old" Simmons and Richard Petty now come to meet their people. To lure the 50-plus crowd, AARP's convention featured performances by Chicago, Paul Simon, Chaka Khan and Regis Philbin. There's Petty over there, signing his photos! And here's KISS's Simmons, 59, who knows where his audience lives now.
"It's surreal to see Regis Philbin on the same bill with Gene Simmons," says Tessa Pollack, 61, who came from San Antonio because going to her first AARP event last year, "as a gag to myself," turned out to be a blast. "It made 60 a little more painless. You look around and you see that America's getting older, but it's a younger older."
She says this after trying her feet on Dance Dance Revolution, the ubiquitous boardwalk arcade game on which most teenagers I know can dance like lab rats in an amphetamines experiment. Pollack's pace is more like my speed on Guitar Hero; I know glaciers that have scored better.
But here she is at AARP, along with a slew of other folks in their 60s, doing as their grandkids do. Same thing over at Nintendo's Wii machines. Across the room, Microsoft is teaching folks how to create slideshows, and Verizon is conducting classes on texting and "cellphone basics."
"Twenty years ago, people this age weren't like this, they weren't trying to stay where they were," says Christel Ross, 54, from Sykesville, Md. "Now, people in their 50s like where we are. We're not trying to be 20; I wouldn't ever want to be what I was in my 20s again. But we're not afraid of being this age.
"The older people here are a lot more spry and agile than people that age were in the 1950s or 60s. Spry — is that the word? My migraine has settled in."
All around me, people scurry off to hear Shirley MacLaine talk about aging. Yes, "spry" is the word. But so is "self." The vast convention hall is a state fair of self-care and self-absorption, the very quintessence of boomerism.
I appreciate the free massage, but I still don't want that card.