Robert Browning penned the words of my headline in “Rabbi Ben Ezra.” A century later, Beatle John Lennon enhanced the idea with his song, “Grow Old With Me,” often paired with his wife, Yoko Ono’s, “Count the Ways,” based on the poem, “How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways,” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wife of Robert.
While some societies, like Native Americans, venerate their elders, Americans, always in search of the fountain of youth, have struggled not only with the idea of growing older, but also with the language of aging. Listen to the observations of Laura Carstensen and Glenda Jackson.
“When I began studying elders, I found that they were doing really well emotionally, even when they weren’t doing so well physically. They were generous, thoughtful and emotionally complex. And I thought, If those qualities are growing because the population is aging, then we’d be idiots not to use that resource to improve society…We should be inspired by problems, not overwhelmed by them,” says Laura Carstensen, Professor of Psychology and Public Policy at Stanford University. She is considered a longevity expert. Carstensen explains that language matters. Society in general, and those who study aging, specifically, have struggled with the terminology of aging - seniors, senior citizens, elders, golden agers. Many older folks disparage those labels.
After meeting fashion designer Maureen Conners, who calls her older customers “perennials,” Carstensen says, “The symbolism it connotes is perfect. For one, “Perennials” make clear that we’re still here, blossoming again and again. It also suggests a new model of life in which people engage, and take breaks, making new starts repeatedly. Perennials are not guaranteed to blossom year after year, but given proper conditions, good soil and nutrients, they can go on for decades. It’s aspirational.”
Probably few illustrate Carstensen’s observations any better than Glenda Jackson, the 81-year-old British actor who has returned to the stage after almost a quarter century of service in the British Parliament. She recently won a Tony for portraying the 92-year-old character known as “A” in the Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. In a recent Vogue article, Jackson, who rarely wears make-up except for that applied by make-up artists in theatrical dressing rooms, grimaces at the question, “Do you worry about the wrinkles on your face?” She replies, “No, I’ve earned this face. I’ve actually lived it. And if you don’t like looking at it, then don’t, but there ain’t anything I can do about it.”
As a young woman, she left a successful acting career in which she had won two Oscars and two Emmys in a few short years, to run for a Labour Seat in Parliament. When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as a society,” Jackson says, “I was so incensed by that, I walked into my closed French doors and almost broke my nose.” Jackson, who spent much of her political life visiting the elderly in nursing homes and day care centers, claims her years in office was spent trying to undo much of Thatcherism. Jackson says, “everything I had been taught as a vice, under Thatcherism, was in fact a virtue.”
As I read Jackson’s disdain for the former prime minister’s policies, I am reminded of the unnerving opening scene in The Iron Lady movie starring Merle Streep as Thatcher. Long retired, an old woman walks down a London street where everyone is oblivious to her. It’s not that the pedestrians are unaware of a once powerful politician; rather it’s a case of society’s blindness to old age.
When Jackson decided not to run again for her seat in Parliament in 2015, producers and directors started calling. She hasn’t stopped acting since then. She discredits any suggestion that she is the exception. “Oh, the hypocrisy that runs around our gender is amazing. If a woman is successful, then she’s deemed to be the exception that proves the rule. If a woman fails, well, we’re all failures.”
Both women, Jackson and Carstensen, promote the concept that the elderly, both women and men, have much to share with younger generations. Perennials can bloom and bloom again.