Authors Explore Aging in America-And See Their Future

By Winokur, Julie | Aging Today, September/October 2003 | Go to article overview

Authors Explore Aging in America-And See Their Future


Winokur, Julie, Aging Today


Seven-Year Project

As a husband-and-wife documentary team, photographer Ed Kashi and I are always looking for compelling stories to cover. In 1995, a series of articles caught our attention. They forecast a society with more people over 55 than under 18 by midcentury, a phenomenon that promised to alter the face of American society.

At the time we were discussing the implications of these articles, Ed was wrapping up the third in a series of National Geographic magazine assignments in the Middle East. He and I had completed a documentary project in Egypt, and we had just had our first child. We were eager to redirect our work back to America. As Ed has written in our new book, Aging in America: The Years Ahead (New York City: PowerHouse Books, 2003): "After nearly a decade of working around the world as a photo-journalist, I began to feel a deep sense of responsibility to turn my camera toward my own society. I set about looking for one of the great themes of my time. . . . I wanted to find a theme that would allow me to explore the human condition through some of the important political and social issues of the day."

GERIATRIC PRISON WARDS

We began our exploration of aging with a story on geriatric prison wards, which was ultimately published in The New York Times Magazine. It was so well received that it inspired us to spend the next seven years traveling to nearly 30 states and documenting a profoundly diverse range of subjects. In the end, we produced a book, documentary film, Web series and traveling exhibition that have won numerous awards, including the American Society on Aging's 2002 Media Award.

Among the subjects we covered were the campaign of a 76-year-old running for public office for the first time, a woman launching her modeling career in her 60s and the Retreads Motorcycle Club for older bikers. We also witnessed the struggles of Lakota Sioux elders trying to carry on their traditions while living in the poorest county in America and explored innovative solutions that are keeping elders out of nursing homes-solutions such as On Lok in San Francisco, which was the model for the Programs for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE).

I have to confess that, like most people, Ed and I had preconceived notions about what it means to grow old, and we approached the issue with a somewhat fixed agenda. We had no idea that this wasn't merely the story of American elders, that it was also the story of the families and the caregivers who are on the frontlines of the age wave. What's more, we did not realize at the outset that we had taken on a subject so taboo that we would have to become advocates as much as journalists, fighting at every turn to gain attention for the issues we were covering.

When Ed and I first started clipping articles, we found an overabundance of stories about 80-year-old skydivers and retirees who rock climb. Although these articles were inspirational, in our eyes they were part of the anti-aging obsession that preoccupies America. We learned that successful aging isn't the ability to out-do youth, but the maturity to embrace a new phase of life. The superseniors who skydive represent the privileged few, and Ed and I were determined to paint a more sober, realistic portrait. We wanted to expose both the unprecedented opportunities and the overwhelming demands-the dueling signatures of longevity.

TREMENDOUS ASSETS

Increasingly, the project forced us to expand our attitudes toward elders. In the United States, it is common to focus on the financial and social drain of the aging population but to overlook the tremendous asset older Americans represent. Good health and financial security make today's elders the perfect antidote to some of today's underserved communities. This society is long overdue in telling our retirees, "We need you. Please stay involved."

Perhaps the most surprising discovery for Ed and me is that we live in an age-segregated society. …

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