The Invisible Years
Thoughts on why the elderly become invisible
Posted August 11, 2009
I first heard about it a few years ago at a cocktail party. A close friend, in her 60s, dressed in a blue and white designer dress to signal the appearance of spring, was lamenting about not being taken seriously at her workplace and humorously remarked, "On top of all of that, no one in the world sees me anymore because I'm an older woman."
However, she was only half joking. I then began to hear more of my older patients describe this experience of feeling "invisible." And then it happened to me. I realized that when I walk down the street, younger people simply don't see me. Not a glance, not a smile, none of the customary, friendly gestures we're used to here in neighborly San Francisco. It was as if I actually disappeared from the sight of people much younger than I.
Why people are increasingly treated as if they're invisible as they age (more prevalent it seems, for women) is curious, though perhaps not surprising. We live in a youth-fixated culture where people are afraid to age and to be vulnerable to growing older; where ideals about attractiveness are oriented around those with young, healthy bodies. Even the role models of middle age women, such as Mary-Louise Parker, the star of Weeds, are over 40, but whose physiques are more similar to women decades younger.
But who can blame them? Women like Ms. Parker embody a quality of attractiveness that we all admire. Though older men are typically held in higher esteem than older women, as a society we tend to value those of either gender who are youthful. This is most obvious in the beauty and fashion industry, and even more so when entertainment media-gossip about Britney Spears usurps news stories about Meryl Streep. We long to identify with beautiful people so we may imagine the young, attractive individuals we wish we were.
Yet, why is it that we can't seem to both admire the young and youthful in appearance while simultaneously appreciating the special qualities possessed by the older individuals of our society? With aging, our looks may diminish, but being older also offers the incredible opportunity to make better choices, to learn from our mistakes, and to pass on our knowledge of life, perhaps even bits of wisdom, to the younger generation.
Beginning in middle-age, we should value what we have to offer as mature, grown adults with lived experience; we often know much more than our younger counterparts. Most of all, older people know what to take seriously and what to let go of. As we grow older, we find that the "small things" in life become less important. Though there are certainly struggles with aging, especially when the process of getting older brings illness and the inevitable constraints of our bodies, many older people I know have a lot to teach; we need to value ourselves, and our (even) older mentors.
Perhaps our self-image does not have to reflect what has for so long kept us in the shadows.