Aging a Shocking Revelation

(L) At home in my office. At 67 I may be older but I don’t feel old. (R) This 1948 vintage ad from Dow Chemicals enthuses about extending life expectancy  “Advances in modern medicine -new drugs of amazing effectiveness have extended our life expectancy to better than 63 .”

I’m at that awkward age.

Turning 68 tomorrow feels a lot like I did when I turned 12. Neither here nor there. Not quite a teenager, but no longer really a child, I felt in limbo. The word tween didn’t exist in 1967. Now I realize I am at that stage where I’m technically no longer considered “middle-aged” which according to Merriam Webster’s definition ends at 64.

But I sure don’t consider myself elderly or old.

And I’m certainly not geriatric.

I need a new word, the tween for the in-between senior set.

I’ve been stuck in middle age for so long, I just never considered leaving it. Middle age is my comfort zone, innocuous, ambiguous, still hopeful, and productive.

As long as we keep changing the goal post with 40 being the new 30 and 60 being the new 45, it felt like I would never leave.

I would never have to be called old. Older maybe, but never old.

And I’m certainly not geriatric.

Of course, it depends on who you ask.

Capt. Merriam Webster defines middle age as “the period of life from 45 to 64.”

Millennials say you are old when you turn 59 and Gen X say old age begins at 65. Baby boomers claim it at 73.

Well according to a vintage ad I came across in Time magazine, at 68 I would already be considered geriatric. Hell, I would have been typed a geriatric for more than 20 years.

According to this 1948  advertisement from Northwestern National Life Insurance, anyone 40 and beyond was considered a geriatric.

That’s pretty depressing.

But the good news is, if I found myself a postwar geriatric suffering from depression a new treatment would give me not only a new lease on life but a longer one too.

The modern benefits of Electro Shock Therapy for depressed geriatrics were nothing short of a miracle.

My Head Spins

I don’t know which was more jolting.

The enthusiastic endorsement of electroshock therapy for melancholia or the fact that I would have been considered part of the geriatric set.

Talk about a birthday surprise.

The Shocking Truth Longer Life for People Past 40

vintage ad for electro shock therapy

Today when 80 is the new 60, it was a bit rattling to see that in 1948, 40 was the old 70. Vintage ad Northwestern National Life Insurance 1948

As benign and invigorating sounding as a spring tonic, Electro-Tonic Therapy as the treatment was called in this ad was indeed a revolutionary panacea in the 1940s.

Now called electroconvulsive therapy, ECT was developed in 1938 by Italian neuropsychiatrists and gained widespread popularity among psychiatrists as a form of treatment in the 1940s and 1950s.

“The Above Drawing illustrates electro-tonic therapy being used to correct involuntary melancholia, an illness besetting increasing numbers of people over 40” begins the informative ad from Northwestern National Life Insurance.

“This remarkable treatment which consists of passing an electric impulse through electrodes fastened to the head is painless. It requires no surgery, relatively brief hospitalization, and is completely effective in 80 to 85 % of the cases.”

“Moreover, since melancholia is a ‘one attack’ ailment, the result is said to be permanent.”

vintage illustration demonstration electro shock thrapy

Vintage illustration of Electro-Tonic Therapy from Northwestern National Life Insurance Ad 1948

Like a thunderbolt, the dark ages were over. This most modern of treatments was a boon to old age.

Media stories of shock treatment enthusiastically described the possibility of improving very ill, formerly hopeless patients. In an age before psychopharmaceuticals, this offered great hope.   In this context, permanent memory loss, confusion, and the risk for vertebral fractures caused by violent convulsive shocks seemed reasonable indeed.

“Melancholia is one of the commonest forms of “nervous breakdown” which will cause one out of 17 Americans now living to spend time in a hospital as a mental patient. It is most likely to strike women 45 to 60 and men 55 to 65.” the copy continues ominously.

“Restoring a sufferer from melancholia-deeply despondent listless and in profound physical and mental lethargy- to his place in the family circle and in society marks another conquest for geriatrics, the science of helping people enjoy life longer.”

Extending Enjoyable Life Expectancy

Magazines were full of ads and articles boasting of the “Great strides that had been made in medicine and in extending the length of life. It is pleasant to contemplate a healthy old age- the peaceful enjoyment of those mature years which hold the richest satisfaction of life. Not until our own time was such a contemplation possible,” one ad explains.

“Although cases of mental illness are increasing the number being cured by psycho-therapy and new procedures such as electro-tonic therapy is increasing even more rapidly. Not only melancholia, but other distressing mental disorders are responding favorably.”

The Snake Pit

Time magazine cover Olivia D Havilland Snake Pit ad for Electro shock therapy

(L) Vintage Time Magazine Cover Dec. 1948 Olivia De Havilland star of new movie The Snake Pit (R) Vintage ad promoting Electro Shock Therapy 1948

The mass media eagerly embraced this most progressive of treatments.

In a brilliant stroke of cross-promotion, this ad appeared in the same year as the film The Snake Pit, giving  Electro Shock Therapy a further jolt of publicity.

In 1946 Readers Digest had electrified the country with its condensed version of the book the film was based on. The Snake Pit,  the best-selling book written by Mary Jane Ward was based on her 8 ½ months experience in a state mental hospital.


The heroine Virginia Cunningham a troubled New York housewife played by Olivia De Havilland in the film receives a large number of therapies- from electro-shock to hydrotherapy to narcosynthesis to psychoanalysis while institutionalized.

Electro Shock treatment was truly a miracle of science.

Modern Miracles

Along with all the great advances in science, the insurance ad goes on to explain electro-tonics’ place in the annals of medicine:

“Thus the cure of these mental ills is fast taking its place with control of such physical ailments as heart disease diabetes kidney disease, anemia, and others which once darkened the prospect of later life.”

“Now thanks to geriatrics, the average man or woman of 40 can count on 30 or more years of leisure and accomplishment. Naturally to enjoy fully those extra years calls for good savings and life insurance.”

And if the treatment caused permanent memory loss and confusion at least you wouldn’t remember what made you melancholy in the first place.

About this, there was no confusion.


© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




  1. Hazel

    On Saturday, I attended my great-grandson’s 12th birthday party. My granddaughter said she couldn’t believe she’d soon be 30. I joined in with my soon-to-be age of 79. Everyone got a shocked look on their faces, particularly the 12-year-old who couldn’t quite wrap his brain around 79. Loved the post about a treatment that no longer sounds like a good idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad you enjoyed this post. These numbers we find ourselves in now seem surreal, and certainly not in line with how we both look and feel.
      From our perspective now this ad is quite laughable and shocking in equal measure.


  2. On a good day I feel 30. On a bad day, I feel 50. When I’m around my parents, I feel 12. What I never feel is old. The numbers are stupid. I’ve been reading this column for a decade? Maybe longer … and I have only ever been shocked when you talk about your age, because you are incredibly contemporary, and really really goodlooking! We should all be so old …


    • You are too kind, and I thank you for your generous compliment. I really don’t give much weight to “numbers” and am only bemused by them. Like you I feel different ages constantly and certainly if my parents were here I would feel about 12 too. Just as I still have frozen them in time in their 40s or early 50s, which makes them younger than I am now.
      Truthfully, the very last time I freaked out over turning an age was when I turned 10. Suddenly I was in double digits and knew there was no turning back from that. The world of single digits was over. It’s been easy sailing after that.


  3. Longer life for people past 40

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I had ECT treatments in my 30s for a very bad depression after a decade of hospitalizations and meds, it was my choice. It changed my life, I got my children and home back, I got me back I love waking up each day. At almost 61 if one is healthy I’d do it again. It’s not the scary procedure of tv movies. It was a 5 minute actual treatment minus prep and within 35 minutes after I went home. Depression robs whole lives from families. My heart goes out to anyone who suffers from or knows someone suffering.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing your story. I certainly know many others who have benefitted from this treatment and it has been life-altering for them. The advances that have been made since the 1940s are tremendous. Unfortunately, to those less informed it still carries a very dated negative association thanks in part to Hollywood versions of the treatment. I know the heavy weight of depression. I have struggled with it for decades. I am so glad to hear how you got your life back.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes it has a huge stigma but works. I watched another inpatient during a stay get the treatments before I did, it’s what made me ask the doctor for it. Now they are done outpatient, in and out.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The more that people are open and discuss how successful and less traumatic the procedure is the stigma can begin to fade. It really should.

        Liked by 1 person

      • People fear what they don’t understand. I’ve been on the edge of that bridge deciding life or death. The truth is most who get to that place don’t want to stop living, they want to stop hurting. 💕


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