A TGB READER STORY: How to Write a Good Obituary
The Alex and Ronni Show – 4 December 2019

Attitudes Toward Old Age

PaulGrahamMotherWaPo

This photograph, one among many, was taken by Paul Graham for his recent book, Mother.

The photo and some others of Graham's mother are included in a Washington Post story written by Keith Dickerman who had recently visited his own mother:

”From my newfound perspective,” writes Dickerman, “Graham’s book looks like a loving meditation on his own mom. The photos are soft, delicate, quiet and, ultimately, reflective. Paging through the book, I felt an affinity for how Graham seems to feel about his mother.”

More portrait than photograph, they led me with each viewing to wonder about her life, the lives of all people who reach a great age and the stillness that seems to accompany many of the oldest old.

Perhaps I have been spoiled by TGB's brilliant comment section, but I hardly ever read comments elsewhere on the internet – so many are stupid, vulgar, mean and therefore time-wasters.

This time, however, I took a glance at them and was not disabused of my opinion:

“I understand this is art," wrote one, "whose purpose is to capture a poignant moment in time. And it is familiar to me as I was there for my mother to her last, when she was a withered shell of herself.

“But I choose not to remember her like this. It is not relevant to who she was. I have several 'snapshots' of her sparkly, vibrant, somewhat incorrigible self in mind, when she was getting the biggest bang out of life. And that is what she would want.”
“Withered shell of herself?” “Not relevant to who she was?” Really? All those late years don't count for anything?

Here are two more:

“I hope to god my children have more kindness and sense than to take and publish photos of me when I am in this state. I’m sure this woman would be horrified to know he has done this.”
“I have raised my children to be kind and I know they would never take pictures of me like this. I don’t want to be remembered as a young woman but as a good mother.”

It is obvious the people who wrote these comments do not believe there is any value to old age. With such apparent loathing of aged bodies, how do they tolerate looking at their mothers? Are they repulsed? Do they tell their children not to photograph their grandmother? Do they not love their old mothers as much as when they were younger?

And will they like themselves less when they are “in this state"?

At the risk of breaking an arm while patting myself on the back, I've made it a point to watch myself age since my mid-fifties when I first realized I am not the world's one immortal. After all those years, my response to changes in my body is generally neutral.

Vein-y hands. Eye crinkles. Forehead lines. Crepe-y neck. Those two smile/frown lines around my mouth – I've watched them deepen over many years and they're still doing it. Plus, as I once wrote in these pages, where did my butt go?

I don't compare myself now to what I looked like as a young or mid-life woman. I look at myself as an old woman now and isn't it amazing the changes that keep happening.

The people who wrote these comments are not outliers. They're just more honest than many others.

But how is it, do you think, that Americans hate old age so much, so deeply? And how is that any different from hating old people themselves?

There are more photos of Paul Graham's mother here. His book is available here and here.


Comments

Thank you for pointing me to this book. I will be sure to check it out. My own mother died three years ago at the age of 102, and I am still mourning her; it will be comforting to read someone's "loving meditation on his own mom." For myself, I have always had an affinity for the aged. When I was a teen, our next-door neighbor was in her 70s and we spent a fair amount of time together. From then on, I have always gravitated to those much older than myself, and I'm grateful for all I have learned from them.

I've said before that "the Greatest Generation" seems to have raised their children to never look back. Both of my foster parents' mothers passed peacefully in the former front room become a downstair bedroom in their home. Those women were respected for all they had accomplished and contributed.
My own grandmother, who wintered in a soddy on the Nebraska prairie through the Blizzard of 1888, died in a nursing home.
Now it's all about appearances and what's au courant. We're losing our history.

Americans hate old age so much because their highest value is independence, self-sufficiency, and old age brings the threat of dependence. Of course, some people live in their own homes until they die, but many choose or are forced to move into "assisted living" or a nursing home. Many are ashamed that they can no longer take care of themselves, and others--looking at them--think they are pathetic. What brings on dependence? Failing bodies. Thus, the repugnance some people feel when viewing old faces and bodies.

The question is, is it really so bad to need help? We all needed help as children. Why should we feel shame at needing help when the body begins to fail? Americans, I think, need to learn that self-sufficiency isn't the be-all, end-all of life.

Being old, looking old....it's all memento mori. Remember, you must die -- which is just too tough for some to accept or contemplate. Yet dying is often referred to as 'going to your reward'. Since no one knows what happens after death, I choose to assume it'll be just fine, even if it's oblivion.

Looking forward to reading this book... am now rereading Spirituality and Aging by Robert C Atchley and getting so much more from it than when I read it in my early 60s.

I, too, am curious to see what happens to my body as I age. Just another stage in life. Of course, it would be grand to keep the same body I had when younger, but, then again, I didn't appreciate it then, so what the hell.
It makes me sad that so many can't even speak of old age or death. Being closer and closer to it, I find it fascinating.

It's a cultural thing. Americans aren't raised to treat older people with the respect they deserve. Look at Native American & Asian cultures, where the elderly are revered. It's sad, and awful & ignorant.

I'll admit it's difficult for me to look at an "old person" and see them when they were my age or younger, unless I know them. My grandmother lived until she was 85, but I knew of her dreams of becoming a nurse in the 1920s (becoming a farmer's wife instead) and saw pictures of her childhood, her 20's, 30's, etc... I always looked at her and saw all those earlier faces too. Like Ronni here, with her strip of faces at the top of her blog. She labels herself a 'crabby old lady' but I'm easily reminded she was all those other women too. If only we all had that strip above our heads... I'm sorry, I'm just rambling.

My philosophy is to make the most of the hand I'm dealt. However, among some of my friends, and especially among some of my women friends, there is a denial of aging. I often get criticized for acting old, whereas I feel I am just being my age.

Now I don't know if this is agism prejudice or not. It may be a defense mechanism or even a variation of positive thinking. I wonder if they believe "think young" is a positive healthy trait. And it starts much sooner than Pual Graham's photo of his mother.

I used to take photos of people for my work's website. Some people would make me take their photos over and over again until they got one they thought made them look young. Some people would even bring me decade-old photos of themselves to use. Others wanted me to Photoshop their looks.

I'm wondering if some people have a survival mechanism that makes them control their self-image. I used to tell them its healthier to accept reality, but I don't do that anymore. I don't know if some people can accept reality.

I was born late in life to my parents. They had children when they were young and newly married, and then later, when those children were gone from the home, they had me.

I watched my brother and sister age--20 and 17 years ahead of me. It gave me a perspective as to what those ages would look like for me. Unfortunately, my dad died just as I turned 16 so I didn't get to see him in old age, but his mother lived a very long life and I often reflect on how she did it. Same with my mother. Having others go before us, to blaze the trail and show us the way.

Great comments here so far. I agree that many people seem to be put off by, and feel uncomfortable around, the very old, just as they seem to feel about the very poor, and it seems to me that's due, as Nancy already pointed out, to how much society values independence and self-sufficiency. I both get this, and I don't. I get it on a gut level, because often our emotional response of is inexplicable and irrational, and based on fear and anxiety. However, on an intellectual level, I don't get it because so very few can really claim to be self-sufficient these days. Unless you are living on the land, providing for all your needs, and eschewing other sources of sustenance, you are not self-sufficient. Almost all of us depend on water from a connection to a government maintained source, or if on a septic system and well, rely on people who service those things now and then. We depend on people who provide medical care, food, auto and appliance repair, even hair care, and so much more.

While taking care of my mother-in-law during the last two years of her life, I took a few photos of her in moments that were particularly poignant. In one she is sitting in her wheelchair in front of her large living room window, where she seemed most comfortable just watching the outside world and quiet with what ever her own thoughts were. In another she was lying on the sofa, with her face turned away, and her head covered by an afghan she had pulled up which sent a clear message of how she felt about the world that day. Neither of these photos show the aged 93 year old face, nor the hands that had such difficulty being still, but sent very clear messages about her feelings in those moments.

Unless we die before reaching the point of needing a wheelchair, or losing much of our capacities, we are all going to go through the same experiences and feel those same feelings and there should be no shame nor pity connected to them.

Hey, what ever happened to the Grey Panthers? I love that image - old and fierce. Anybody want to start a group?

That is a perfectly beautiful photograph and so sad to see how it was received from a younger perspective. For a long time, I really didn't want anyone to take a photo of me, and then when I finally settled into this new time in my life, I laugh and show my crooked teeth and all the crinkles and lines that cover my face. Looks so much better than that horribly po-faced look I had when I was trying to look the way I used to. As to the grey Panthers, Grey yes, not so sure about the fierce, but willing to give it a go.
Thank you Ronni
o/

I made a video on my cell phone of my mom on the day she died— asleep, breathing heavy. Her tiny body all spotty in her pink nighty. Her hair had thinned to wisps. I look at it from time to time to remind me of what natural death from advanced age (98) is like. It’s peaceful.

My husband's semi invalided mother (thanks to a botched surgery) lived with us for 13 years and our children were able to participate in her care and watch as she became more dependent. When she was in her 90's and in a nursing home, my husband took a photo of her in her wheelchair. We thought it beautiful and poignant so when we gathered for her funeral we had copies made for all the grandchildren. Everyone seemed very pleased except one daughter-in-law who was upset as she look "so frail". Well, she was! And we wanted the grandkids to see her a lovely grandmother and great grandmother who had aged as we all will, but had retained her dignity.

I felt that my mom Rose became more beautiful as she aged, living to nearly 99. My husband was a hairdresser and always gave her these tres chic short haircuts, even in the nursing home. After he died, I didn’t trust the on-premises hairdresser after seeing her not so stellar work on other residents, so I let my mom’s hair grow. Eventually it was long enough for me to tie in a silver topknot, and the way it swept up the side of her face brought out her elegant bone structure and features. I loved taking care of beautiful mom, I had her until I was 70 years old (in 2014), how blessed were we . . . .

Oh, The Grey Panthers! I'd forgotten about them, I'm in, Charlotte. Just over the past several years I look "old." Scraggly eyebrows, ridgy fingernails, lots of lines and wrinkles and bags under the eyes, etc. In hindsight I see how I clung to appearing youthful, but now that it's a done deal, I'm really getting into the liberty of it. How did I have time for all the earrings, eyeliner, getting the hair just as I wanted it, clothes............poof, not worth the trouble, never was. I now wear lipstick once in a while, it's easy, and somehow says to the world that I'm still in charge. Or maybe that's just another fantasy.
So many other cultures love their elderly for the very reason that they are considered closer to Spirit, God, the Universe.......and of course, wisdom.

I believe there's plenty of value to old age. But I'll tell you. My wife and I decided to have our portrait painted about 10 years ago, because we wanted to be remembered as the happy, vital people we were in our prime. I'm plenty happy now, and cherish the last 10 years, and look forward hopefully to at least another 10 years, but let's face it, we are not as vital, or as good-looking, as we once were. Reality.

People, I feel, don't actually "hate" old age so much as they are scared of it. Human society has taught people to be scared of old age. The stereotype portrays loneliness and declining health/agility. For many years I felt old age was a time when there would be nothing left to do, life was done with. Now that I am arriving, I am surprised to find I still have plans and goals. I am no longer scared, just a little short on the energy I want. B

What a beautiful photo! I am old but not "the oldest of the old" yet. I like the way people of all ages look, but I must admit that when it comes to remembering my mother-in-law, I prefer to remember the strong woman she always was before dementia took away her spark. Although even then, her wrinkled face and fluff of white hair had its own beauty.

Funny. I just wrote my blog (for my industry) on whether to continue working or retire. My industry is a young one . or young people are preferred. Perhaps because there is much movement required in some of what we do. I see so many - in family and mishpocheh, among colleagues - who do all they can to "look young": dyed hair, whitened teeth, 'cool' clothing - and to "act young". For many it's the only way to keep a job. Discrimination against old(er) people is rampant in the workforce and in life. And I think there is such a fear of being incapacitated that there is fear of growing old. That may come from the experience of seeing others age with difficulty.

Is it a fear of death?

I don't know.

A friend just posted in social media about their sweet pup who is 17 with dementia and fading. This puppy (can you be a 'puppy' at 17 dog years?) is still so sweet and loving and yet seeing her now v. 13 years ago when we met is sad. I think I'd prefer she hadn't aged.

And that brings me to what I always think about w/ aging: do people want to live 'forever'? How many want to continue to a very old age?

It's complicated isn't it?

I love seeing older people for their wrinkles and their age that shows they lived. Whether that life was easy or difficult, it is one's to own.

What's to like about losing one's abilities, independence and human dignity (in American society, they seem to be interrelated)? In the end elders can lose their very personhood when they must depend on others for care. I hope I do not live long enough to find myself in that situation. We strive to do the best we can, but if truth be told, I do not think I am alone.

It is what it is.


Old people looks are beautiful to me.

What Nina said.

And this..

Yesterday in a military hospital.

A 97 year old WW2 veteran lies in a bed facing a window.

He's missing an ear.

His smile is engaging, his eyes alert and focussed.

He remembers me.

The wall facing his bed is adorned with photos of him as a child, teen, new recruit, his first wedding photo, his son, his second wedding photo. (Both marriages happy, first wife died. Second wife died.)

Photos of his military buddies, the plane he piloted, family vacations.

He says:

"These photos are the last things I look at before going to sleep."

(I volunteer at this hospital.)

One of my greatest pleasures in life is chatting with seniors, especially when we travel.

Back at the hospital..

"Hi Mister X, how are you doing today?"

He hands me an expensive pair of binoculars, a gift from his son.

"Go ahead. Try them out."

I take the binocs from his wrinkled shaky hands. The same hands that helped save our allied butts.

Put them up to my eyes.

Adjust them, like the personal adjustment I made after day one as a new volunteer.

Wondered if what I would encounter would depress the H out of me. But I signed up.

We're on the fourteenth floor.

Aim the binocs toward Montreal.

Wow, Mister X.

I can see clearly now. All the way into the city.

St. Joseph's Oratory in full radiant light.

He invites me to sit in a big old chair.

We chat.

It soon becomes obvious that any story I might share is a pimple on an elephant's butt compared to his life history.

We chat, I say goodbye, leave the hospital, get into my car and say this to myself.

"You have nothing to complain about."

I feel very strongly that every day I am alive has got to be as much "me" as any other day, because, otherwise, how could I ever know which was the apex "me" day and what a sorrow that would be! I just want to fully inhabit my self as best I can until I go.

Nice comment, doctafill. Very nice.

And Doug M., I love the thought about having all our “selves” streaming above our heads. Each image is as valid as any other to represent the essential us. I have no problem looking my age—after all, it is my age—but I would kinda like for people to know that there were other versions of me over the many years I have been on Earth. I have always thought that Ronni’s banner for Time Goes By was a brilliant choice.

I was thinking about taking a picture of me, in my dashingly-handsome prime (you would believe it if you saw it), and have it embossed on a big six inch diameter "badge" that I could pin to my shirt so that every individual that I meet would realize that I wasn't always old and actually could easily compete with them now if my younger self were here. I just might out of spite. But, they wouldn't care and they'd laugh at me--so I won't; Scratch that idea.

Lovely photos of an old woman who was loved. I am only 72 years old and hopefully will have many more years here. I am not shy about disclosing my age. I have grown out my gray hair and love my wrinkles. I've earned every single one of them. I'm tired of the culture's quest for youthful appearance.

The media has a lot to account for in the subject of old age. My teen grand kids are fond of some Disney pap with Ariana Grande in it and the portrayals of their grandparents or other elders are all disparaging and mean. I point this out out them but they still go home and watch it. It fact the main characters are all rude and mean to each other as well. Our local newspaper described a woman of 60 who was in an auto accident as "elderly." I wrote them a letter that the extra adjective was inaccurate and unnecessary. We just do what we can.

Fierce Grey Panthers, Okay. I've never been a *Joiner* but count me in, just as long as we ALL have to wear the proper badges suggested by Johnd G. Still chuckling over that great comment.
When I stopped coloring my hair most of my friends disapproved. To hell with that foolish process! The Boomers seem to be making grey hair sorta cool, maybe we can normalize what aging really looks like. Photo above is beautiful to the unblemished eye. The Culture is the culprit.

"And it is familiar to me as I was there for my mother to her last, when she was a withered shell of herself." Both my parents became "withered shells" before death, due to weight loss caused by illness and the effects of the illness and meds prescribed for pain. I don't see this reference as disrespectful but as realistic.

Ronni,
Forgot to mention - I think I found your butt!
What the heck is it doing in MY sweatpants?
Me? The Butt-less Wonder for oh so many decades?
Sheesh.

Rosie...

I'm glad to know it's not entirely lost . Take good care of it - it served me well for a long time.

Another thought provoking post, Ronni. The comments gave some good explanations. Marketing and the media I think have a lot to do with pushing the young and making the old invisible here.

I don’t know about the US law regarding older people here but I know the law in France. Because of the French civil code started by Napoleon, French citizens have to take care of their parents financially when old if they need it, it is the law. It is a very different culture from the US, solidarity is super strong there, including solidarity with older citizens. A poll showed that people are not considered “old” until after 74 years of age. Growing up I was always around older people, from my family, friends, neighbors, etc. It was natural to mix inter-generationally. For example I went to Paris twice to 3 times a year to see my mum and help her – must have flown back to France at least 60 times or more while she was alive, and it was expensive. Many other French friends did the same. It is considered normal to take care of your family. I noticed with surprise that elders are mocked here in a way, mostly on TV, and am not sure why, since they should be considered a good market. I enjoy reading about these cultural differences on your blog.

I think there are a lot of people in this country as I think of my own experience — my friends and family, their children plus immediate relatives — who do care for older folks. This seems to be especially true, too, of many other citizens, even generations removed from present relatives, who are in minority groups who do the same. This is particularly true, I think, of Mexican-Americans though in Calif. they’re on a par number-wise now with Caucasians. Unfortunately, there are also many people who do disavow any sense of responsibility for older folks, so the U.S. does seem to give less caring attention to too many in our elder population. Guess we could do well to examine the status of those we encounter in our lives to see all are cared for in addition to ourselves.

Thank you for this beautiful post. I'm thinking of my grandmothers, my own mother and father and not as they were when they were young. What sweet memories. TGB is changing my attitude toward aging, just as my baby-boomer body is changing and I must accept this new phase of life.

I am a 73 year old woman and when I say« I'm an old woman»,which I am, everybody around me cringe and frown, saying, «what nonsense, you're still young». YOUNG! As if! I think they don't consider me young, they are just afraid of old age and exorcise it any way they can:-)
I thouroughly enjoy my present life, I've been able, at last, to do things I couldn't do before, either because I did not have the time or the financial strength. It is a privilege I've earned because I'm ...old!
Both my grandmothers died around 74/75, and I'm still around and kicking.
What is not to like about getting old...instead of ceasing to exist?

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