Like most women my age of a certain literary bent there is nothing that soothes me more than a perfect picture of Joan Didion — her oversized sunnies, her composure, the effortless chic of her bobbed hair and thin body swimming in one of her minimalist shifts. So, when in 2015, at the age of 81, Didion became the face of a new Celine campaign it felt like a certain pocket of the world had exhaled a collective “Yasss!”
There she was, in a glossy page of Vogue, preserved, stately, her diminished frame and indistinguishable spirit. Up in the smoggy heavens, on a billboard next to the Patron sign in Hollywood was our patron Saint Joan — an octogenarian in lieu of 17-year-old Russian doll children made up to be women. It felt like fashion was a little less cutthroat, like beauty was a little more human; it felt, in short, like progress… comforting.
And perhaps that was the problem. Joan Didion is an icon. And, as they say, icons never really die. So it left me wondering in what way the fashion industry — as it always must if capitalism is to plow ahead — was tapping even more deeply into our psychic fears. In what ways did this campaign ease my own anxiety of my grandmother’s last days in the hospital — translucent skin, beautiful, and terrifying? In what ways did the designer sunglasses obscure our own vision of bedsores, bruises, and adult diapers?
Was Joan Didion in Celine a palliative for our own fears of age and death?
In the wave of the late-60’s socio-political movements, Robert N. Butler, physician and gerontologist, coined the term ageism. His concerns with the many manifestations of discrimination against the elderly both in public opinion and institutional practices fueled his research in geriatric psychiatry and, in 1975, he became the founding director of the National Institute of Aging (NIA). In the same year, his book, Why Survive?: Being Old in America was released and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. Butler’s book, which looked into topics like elderly poverty, failures in the social security system, and senior isolation, not only sought to demystify our hard-wired beliefs on old age, but called for radical reform of the aging institution at large.
Now, 44 years later, where are we? Headlines are everywhere on the elderly crisis, the recent unraveling of the quixotic dream of the Affordable Care Act, the terror of trying to get any sort of decent coverage with the growing list of pre-existing conditions, etc.
The status of healthcare is frightening enough as a relatively healthy young person — how much more worrisome for a person who, simply through the regular wear and tear of the human body, is now stigmatized as a liability?
Perhaps the most insidious ramification of ageism is our tendency to look away and generalize. Who hasn’t heard their parents bemoan misplacing their keys as being senile as if this is just par for the course along with a few gray hairs? This mindset is pervasive and current research has shown how, too often, we expect the elderly to lose their faculties, to do less — and with this, they do in fact do less (as do those looking after them). We deny the humanity of an individual, often ignoring the possibilities of a unique health experience, to disregard signs of depression as if mental health is something they have aged out of.
Perhaps this complacency in believing that there is little to be done for those on their way out of this life accounts for the paltry number of health care professionals entering into geriatrics. It doesn’t feel cutting edge or glamorous — it feels like a failure from the start. Research shows many who are treating the elderly do not have the necessary expertise. Furthermore, the elderly are often excluded from clinical trials so the risk of mixing medications, misunderstanding side effects, and overmedicating are high.
That’s not to say there has not been progress. We are, of course, in the midst of an age boom. 10,000 people turn 65 every day. How bad can healthcare really be? And yet, with our efforts towards longevity and wellness the problem of ageism is not simply theoretical, rather it is displaced. If our present approach to elderly care proved a problem for our grandparents — who survived this long on martinis at lunch, hormone-packed steak dinners, asbestos ceilings, and cigarettes on airplanes — how much longer for all of us with our probiotics, cleanses, Keto diets, and eye rolls whenever a whiff of a Marlboro Light wafts our way?
We are living well. We are living our best life. We aren’t dying anytime soon… and neither are our stereotypes of getting old.
Living to 110 in the near future might no longer be some rarity for some smiling and gloriously-wrinkled mountain woman in the Guinness Book of World Records — our life expectancy is getting longer and we are not fully equipped.
Our discomfort with dying and the decrepitude of the body fuels our obsession towards wellness and, without a doubt, is a positive step as we look towards alternative medicine and health practices for preventative measures.
Indeed, our desire to triumph over future illnesses is empowering, it is noble, but it can misdirect our focus in hopes that our older, sickly self can be put on hold indefinitely.
I think about my own grandmother during her last days in the hospital. She was frail. She was, of course, in pain, but when my father asked her — in efforts to be lighthearted — “How did you get here (in the hospital), Mom?” She craned her head to the right, and, with a sphinx-ish smile replied, “Oh, Tom, we were all just so bored, I decided for a little excitement.” I remember a nurse laughing. I remember all of us laughing at this woman who was so perfectly herself to the very last minutes of her life.
The point of the Joan Didion x Celine campaign was not really a protest against a youth-obsessed industry. The point was not, “Look here, this is an 80-year-old woman!” The point was “Look, this is the miraculous and talented Joan Didion.”
As we make strides to take ownership and overcome our own ageism I think we must do the same thing. We must look right into the face and say, “This is not another 80-something-year-old. This is me.”