Back in 2007, I got the idea for an art project that involved photographing the elderly and having them discuss their lives before they became old and retired.
My inspiration for this project came from a conversation I had with an elderly woman who was a retired partner at the law firm where I worked. Back in her day, she had been quite a trailblazer: as I recall, she was one of the first female partners ever at this very old, very Southern and very well-known law firm.
Now, pushing 90, she was recently widowed and lived in a retirement where the highlight of her week (and that of most of her fellow residents) was to walk across the street to the Giant supermarket each Friday when the new magazines were put out on display.
I remember thinking that this was funny when I first heard this but after I thought about it for awhile, I thought it was very sad. I remember wondering: is this what I had to look forward once I joined the ranks of the elderly.
I thought about aging a lot that year. Earlier in the year, I celebrated a milestone birthday (I turned 30), and I started to do editing work for a retired professor who was 76 years old at the time. I also lived a town which is popular place to retire. I was surrounded by people of a certain age, but I never stopped to think of what their lives were like before they became old and largely invisible to most of the world.
In fact, that the only option to not getting old is to die. Indeed, in our culture, there is an air of romanticism around those that “live hard and die young”. Think of the infamous “27 Club” whose members include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse to name a few. There is even an expression that only the good die young.
As a woman, I think of all the products marketed specifically to members of my sex: the pills, the potions, the lotions-all of which (falsely) promise to stop the clock and/or return the body to its youthful self. Of course, none of this stuff actually works, but many people still want to believe the promises. There is even a branch of medicine devoted to anti-aging, and it is expected to grow especially as the population as a whole begins to grow older.
Still, even if there is a huge scientific breakthrough that radically slows down or prevents the physical signs of aging the truth remains that for most of us, we get old. We are also living longer than ever and a recent National Geographic cover story suggests that some of us may live to be 120 years old.
Therefore, the only way to really conquer the fear of aging is to accept it and even embrace some of its advantages.
Yeah, getting old may have it’s drawbacks, but there are real advantages, too.
Like my aforementioned boss recently mentioned over lunch, there is a freedom that comes with aging. He shared that he no longer cares so much what people think of his opinion. (And least anyone think that aging equals inertia, he is 82, still lives independently along with his wife of the same age, recently has written a book and in the past year alone has made trips to several areas including Washington State, New York, Puerto Rico, and Goa.)
I’m not suggesting that this is typical, but the idea that creativity and success only happen to the young is not true. Indeed, one of my favorite late-bloomer success stories of all time is Harland aka “Colonel” Sanders who by his own admission was a professional failure until he was well into his 50s.
As a woman who has worried for a good part of her life about her looks, I look forward to moving past that. That does not mean “letting myself go”, but I look forward to the day when I am past most of that. (I am especially looking forward to the day when my hair goes totally grey because my own father and most likely my mother, will never have that opportunity.)
In the mean time, I am, via my project, taking the time to get to know some of those “invisible” people around me. I am fascinated by people in general and their stories and if I have learned anything, it is that most people have an interesting story to tell even if one would never suspect it just by looking at them.
Perhaps if we come to see aging as a privilege rather than a burden we as a society can change and stop ignoring people once they reach a certain age.
It may be an ambitious goal, but it certainly is worth a shot.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise