On Saturday, I posted one photograph with a link to more of elders who are at least 100 years old. The goal of the photographer is to show the beauty in age, and the reason it is necessary for some people to occasionally take on such a project is that most cultures abhor aging.
From the cradle we are bombarded with images, words and ideas about getting old – every one of them negative.
The best kind of elders, they say, are those who are “young at heart” (whatever that means). It is, supposedly, a compliment to hear, “You don’t look that old.” And in recent years, the media has made a fetish of lionizing elders who take on extreme sports such as climbing Mt. Everest, skydiving and bungee jumping that even most young people are too smart to try.
Not to mention the 24/7 barrage of television commercials and other advertising that makes it seem unAmerican not to be using wrinkle creams and inject ourselves with Botox because – well, you know, looking old is offensive.
The attitude of certain lawmakers toward elders, particularly since the crash of 2008, is schizophrenic: old people should work longer before becoming eligible for Social Security and Medicare, some say, while others wring their hands muttering about how all those old farts are taking jobs young people could be doing.
And a whole lot of legislators and presidential wannabes, too, believe elders are responsible for the federal debt and deficit. What a bunch of greedy geezers elders are, insisting on “entitlements” they paid into for 40 or 50 or more years.
What do you suppose is the price old people pay from such damaging portrayals? Last week, the Hastings Observer in England reported on the suicide of one Jack Semmens [emphasis added]:
“AN AUTHOR who sent a press release to the Observer announcing his death, killed himself to avoid old age despite being in good physical health.
“Jack Semmens, 73, had meticulously planned his suicide over a period of months and a ‘how-to’ book for those wishing to end their lives was found lying near his body…”
Friends confirmed the man’s abhorrence of aging and one said he looked younger than his 73 years.
“When we met, I asked him how old he was, but he wouldn’t tell me,” she said. “He said, ‘Then you will start treating me like an old person.’”
I vacillate between feeling pity for this man and wanting to smack him: how dare he, an elder, confirm the general cultural belief that getting old is so awful it is worth dying to avoid.
In the way of the interwebs, on the same day I read the suicide story, I found in The Hindu, a large-circulation newspaper in India, another approach to aging:
“’Old age,’ says Neelam, a sprightly 85-year-old, ‘is a time that is just as rich and as worthy of being lived as all the other ages in our lives.’ Between letting go of our youth and accepting our death, there is a time when we can, if dealt with properly, feel deeply happy and free.”
The writer of The Hindu column, Kusum Lata Sawhney, is a novelist and poet who writes on women’s issues and social trends. She continues [again, my emphasis]:
“’I realised that I no longer had to keep the same weight as when I was 20. I felt a calm acceptance towards my body and went out and bought a whole new wardrobe,’ [said 58-year-old Malti]. Once we accept who we are then others learn to accept us for who we are.
“The key to a happy old age is to invest in the emotional part of our selves. We might change from the outside but we remain the same way within. You do not have to be only young to have eyes that sparkle even though they have bags, skin that glows even though it is lined, hair that is grey but shines brightly and indulge in conversation that is interesting…
“Old age creeps up on you. I have heard many people say this. ‘One day I was young and the next day I was old.’ But you don’t just retire from living — you retire from a way of life that has to make way for the slower body. Let go of the niggling insecurities and enjoy the life that is your right. Don’t throw it away because it is too precious to waste!”
Sometimes you have to wonder about how the universe works – that I read these two stories on the same day, both at websites I rarely visit, the first one deeply disturbing and the second as though in answer to my troubled thoughts.
For nearly eight years I’ve been banging on here about the dismal state of cultural beliefs related to aging that cause such terrible events as Mr. Semmens’ misguided suicide.
Make no mistake, it is the culture that killed him although I doubt there will be any public outcry or call to examine the values that led this man to choose an early, untimely death.
That needs to change and that’s why I keep writing.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, William Weatherstone: Single Seniors