Hardly a week goes by that I do not receive a press release or reader email alerting me to a photography exhibit of elders. So much so that it is hard not to conclude that it is becoming a growth industry.
The two most common categories are closeups of wrinkled skin and old people participating in sports - or, sometimes, both in the same series.
It is always better, I believe, so see more portrayals of old people, in any medium, than not. But too many of the photographs are just ordinary and stand out only for having been shot in harshly lit black-and-white which, as any denizen of the internet and certain galleries knows, is the signal that you are in the presence of “art.”
You can choose to reject that designation if your judgment tells you otherwise particularly, in my case, when it seems the photographers' goal is to shock us with the apparent ruin of 90-year-old bodies.
In June, Lillian B. Rubin died. She was 90 years old, a sociologist, a psychologist and author of several useful and well-received books including, in 2008, 60 on Up: The Truth About Aging in the 21st Century.
In reading Rubin's obituary, I was reminded of the opening line in that book,
“Getting old sucks. It always has, it always will.”
Anyone who has been reading this blog for longer than a day or two know that I disagree. But I do know what she was getting at and some of that is contained in an article she wrote for Salon in 2011:
”...old age - even now when old age often isn't what it used to be – is a time of loss, decline and stigma.
“Yes, I said stigma. A harsh word, but one that speaks to a truth that's affirmed by social researchers who have consistently found that racial and ethnic stereotypes are likely to give way over time and with contact, but not those about age.
“And where there are stereotypes, there are prejudice and discrimination – feeling and behavior that are deeply rooted in our social world, and consequently make themselves felt in our inner psychological worlds as well.”
In a short but remarkable section of that Salon article, written when Rubin was 87, she admits to her own prejudice against old people. As she recalled the interviews with elders that she conducted for 60 on Up,
”...I found myself forced back on myself, on my own prejudices about old people, even though I am also one of them.
“Even now, even after all I've learned about myself, those words – I am one of them – bring a small shock. And something inside resists.
“I want to take the words back, to shout, 'No, it's not true, I'm really not like them,' and explain all the ways I'm different from the old woman I saw pushing her walker down the street or the frail shuffling man I looked away from with a slight sense of discomfort.
“I know enough not to be surprised that I feel this way, but I can't help being somewhat shamed by it.”
My own “small shock” and “surprise” and “shame” is that sometimes I catch myself, when I pay attention, feeling like Rubin. Because even though I am hyper-aware, thanks to the work I do for this blog, that I am one perilous fall or terrible diagnosis away from disastrous need of part- or full-time care, I feel different from those who do.
But what Rubin was getting at when she wrote that getting old sucks is not so much the physical manifestations as the emotional and spiritual changes that our culture does not acknowledge even as it is the major source.
Rubin and I share a disdain for the relentless focus on youth, the anti-aging industry, the dubious value of brain games, elders who pretend they are not old.
It is the less than artful photography of ancient bodies I mentioned above that comes to mind when I read part of Rubin's conclusion in her Salon piece:
”...we're living in a weird combination of the public idealization of aging that lies alongside the devaluation of the old. And it isn't good for anybody.
“Not the 60-year-olds who know they can't do what they did at 40 but keep trying, not the 80-year-olds who, when their body and mind remind them that they're not 60, feel somehow inadequate, as if they've done something wrong, failed a test.”
Until we, as a society, find a way to value the late years of elders' lives – all the years, in all their manifestations - there will continue to be old people like Lillian Rubin, me and a certain percentage of you who are ashamed to know that sometimes we feel “not like them.” Until we are forced, one day, to admit, finally, that we are.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dan Gogerty: Ag Terms in Advertising – Natural Ignorance is Bliss