Ed and Older Americans Month

By Ed Friedman

Old?…Yeah… So?

May has been designated Older Americans Month (OAM) by the Administration on Aging since 1963.  OAM acknowledges the contributions of older people in the U.S. led by the Administration for Community Living, and the annual observance offers the opportunity to learn about, support, and celebrate our nation’s older citizens.

So… Older Americans Month and Lifetime Arts. Seems like a no-brainer. But, hold on. Who are these older citizens we’re celebrating? The default presentation of older adults in the media is men who wear their pants pulled up to their armpits and women in rolled up stockings and orthopedic shoes, both having dinner at 4:00. Neither of whom can hear.

Not only does “older” encompass a vast age range due to longer life spans, but generally people are staying healthier, longer, with great potential for a high quality of life. This year AARP came out with a video which purports to blow the myths around aging (Millennials Show Us What Aging Looks Like.) In the video, we see people between 19 and 33 who are asked “how old is old?” Their answers range from 40 to 50s. The young people are then asked to perform some simple physical task as they think an old person would do it. These attempts depict the older person as highly incapable and even doddering (which come to think of it, is a word we use only while describing old people). Then each is introduced to an older adult (55-75) and the pair is instructed to “teach each other something you’re good at.” The pairs engage in various kinds of physical activity-dancing, yoga, etc. The young people are again asked how old “old” is, and all their answers skew much higher; 80s, 90s, and 100s.  This paints a picture of consciousness being raised and a new awareness about the capacity of older adults.

The problem with this, according to author Ashton Applewhite from her blog This Chair Rocks (a must-subscribe) is:

Every exchange involves athletic ability. What about olders who can’t kickbox or tango? What about those of us who excel at bridge or typing (ahem)? What about the irrefutable fact that aging involves physical decline? The olders in the video made the cut because they can move like younger people. It’s in synch with the website’s problematic promise to deliver “lively conversation about age-defying people” but it is a narrow and punishing metric, because it suggests that the way to have value in old age is to “act young.” The video is steeped in age denial, as are the comments of the older participants, who say things like “Age doesn’t matter” and “When people start stopping, that’s when they start getting old.” That might be when they start getting sick, and I hope the guy who says it is able to stay active, but he’s no younger than any other 75 year old.

In fairness to AARP, it’s hard to make bridge-playing interesting in a five minute video. That brings me to two people (out of the very many I could name) that I want to celebrate this month. I had the distinct pleasure and honor to see James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in the recent revival of The Gin Game, the Pulitzer prize winning tragicomedy by D.L. Coburn.

Tyson and Jones (the only cast members) play residents at a seedy nursing home who strike up an acquaintance. Neither seems to have any other friends, they dislike the home and reluctantly they start to enjoy each other’s company. Mr. Jones’s character, Weller, offers to teach Ms. Tyson’s character, Fonsia, how to play gin rummy, and they begin playing a series of games that Fonsia always wins. Weller’s inability to win a single hand becomes increasingly frustrating to him, while Fonsia becomes increasingly confident. While playing they engage in lengthy conversations about their families and their lives in the outside world. Gradually, each conversation becomes a battle, much like the ongoing games.

These are two challenging roles that require mental acuity, physical stamina, the ability and willingness to tap into a wide range of emotions, and considerable acting technique. To Applewhite’s point, this talent could not be captured in twenty seconds of video. It’s said by some that actors who work in film or television lose their ability to command the stage in live performance where there are no re-takes.  Although these two stars have done considerable work on the big and small screen, there was no evidence that their skills have diminished, in fact, their skills are more refined. I was thrilled at these portrayals, not because of the actors ages (Mr. Jones, 85; Ms. Tyson, 92) but because I was caught up in a story brought to life by exceptional actors. I only mention their ages to show that age is not an impediment to excellence. You get better at doing something by continuing to do it.

The message is as simple as it is obvious:

1.If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, don’t let your age be an impediment.

Quick story: Many years ago my niece was sitting around with a bunch of her girlfriends, all in their early 20s, talking about what they wanted to do with their lives. One young woman said, “I want to go to pharmacy school, but by the time I’m done I’ll be 25”.  I couldn’t help myself. I turned to her and said. “You’re gonna be 25 anyway.”

2. If there’s something you’ve been doing that gives you joy, don’t stop unless you have to. And if you do have to, come up with a plan B.

3. If you’re reading this with the casual detachment of someone in their 30s or 40s and you want to be good at something, start now. Even small steps will get you there.

4. For everyone else, see #1.

Keep an eye out for the next “Ed Talk!” Coming soon.
Ed Friedman

Ed Friedman

Ed is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Lifetime Arts. He has spent over 30 years in parallel careers serving the arts community, and older adults and their families.

Artwork by Lisa Curran
Ed Friedman

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