I use the term ‘ignorance’ here not in its usual connotation of lack of knowledge, but as its secondary meaning: unawareness of something, often of something important.
And, I don’t mean that we who are old are unaware. But that our culture, our society, is unaware… of something important: US. And my fear is that we are becoming another "lost generation." Because of the way aging is treated in our country, for many older people, it has come to mean loss of value, of importance, of being able to contribute to the world around us. We are not invited in. I think of the words I came upon in the book, A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny. The author describes a poignant and enigmatic portrait of a woman painted by one of her lead characters as: “hating the world that had left her behind. Left her alone…To see, to watch and to never be included.” I don’t ever want to feel that way, and I am working hard not to by writing as often as I can about what I feel is a growing and destructive trend of exclusion.
The be-all, end-all of our culture is to stay young, and if impossible to realize in actuality, well, there’s always a face lift. Youth is revered in this country and old age is something to fear and try to ignore as long as possible. If we, the older generation, were made to feel a respected part of our society, asked to contribute our knowledge, our craft, our wisdom, if you saw our faces in commercials other than ones for Medicare or wheelchairs or bladder problems, if you saw how inventive and attractive we are in clothing ads, if there were more plays and movies written with substantial roles for old men and women instead of demeaning skits that mock the aging, if society did not isolate the large aged population into like communities, we would be incorporated into the natural flow of life. And that would make us a richer and emotionally healthier society. Our culture is missing an important segment of the population that has much to give, to inspire, to innovate. But we are not a part of the conversation. What a waste!
Aging is a physical and emotional reality. And it’s not easy. The physical part of it tends to get our attention first, with all kinds of aches, pains and breakdowns even as we try to keep on going, exercising, eating healthful foods, etc. But it’s the emotional part of aging that can determine how ‘gracefully’ we will age. The emotional component to the physical changes and limitations, including the limitations society has put on including us, for some can mean depression and anxiety…after all this is really the final act. Whether you’ve divided your play into 4 acts or 3. It’s not intermission.
Attitude is everything. And for those with a good one, life is not dreary even with the reality of how our society thinks of us.
Enter Robert Redford, our golden boy who is now our golden oldie. He’s 77, my soon-to-be age. His wonderful face, which he is not reticent to have photographed, is a memoir of his life well lived. Just as mine is. Just as the faces of all of us who have decided to look our age. There is no road map on a plastic face. There is no truth there except a dire fear of looking like yourself. There is only a surgeon’s skill.
But beyond Redford’s face is his willingness to share his feelings on aging. The Sunday Arts and Leisure section (October 13, 2013) of the New York Times, featured an article by Maureen Dowd about him, his philosophy of life, his work, and his new movie, “All is Lost,” about to be released. A man fighting to survive a disaster at sea. A man against the elements. A man for himself, struggling to survive against great odds. Mr. Redford told Ms. Dowd: “I’m interested in that thing that happens where there’s a breaking point for some people and not for others. You go through such hardships, things that are almost impossibly difficult and there’s no sign that it’s going to get any better, and that’s the point where people quit. But some don’t.” And he did not. Redford had some horrific tragedies to deal with in his own life and he kept on.
And I can say this from experience: There are lots of Robert Redfords out here. By the time we get to be what is considered ‘old,’ and that depends on who’s considering, we will have endured many traumatic experiences, deaths, and for some, unspeakable tragedies for which we have suffered and survived. We also know some who did not survive or could not survive or chose not to survive. This last act takes everything we have to keep on moving forward into the unknown. This time of life takes chutzpah, good nature and a will that cannot be bent by our circumstances. It takes us saying "yes" to the life we have; "yes to what is ours even though we hurt, we're scared and we're unsure." We're still here and we can still do our part.
It would just be nice to know that our American society would be at our backs, holding our hands, asking our advice, appreciating our creative work, inviting us to their parties. Making us feel an important part of our culture, which we are. That would certainly save what I fear is turning out to be another “lost generation.”
Is that asking too much?