Authors Explore Aging in America-And See Their Future
Winokur, Julie, Aging Today
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.
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. Thanks to modern mobility and people's desire to choose intentional communities over extended families, the generations are relatively ignorant of each other. Ed and I had to face the fact that we, too, had fallen into the same trap. Between us, we had two surviving parents, both of whom lived thousands of miles away. We also became acutely aware that we had no older adults in our immediate circle and that our children were being cut off from an entire generation. This revelation proved to be one of the saddest ones of our work, reflecting a situation that is all too prevalent in the United States.
As we delved deeper, we were shocked to realize how unprepared this society is for the legions of people approaching old age. Although Social Security and Medicare have made elders here more secure than ever before, the United States doesn't have an adequate plan for people as their physical and mental capacity decline. Forcing older people to spend down their assets so they can end up in a nursing home seems like a cruel reward after a lifetime of contribution.
Ed and I witnessed over and over again that many of the needs of older adults are quite simple. Basic needs like grocery shopping, doing laundry and driving to the doctor's office can be huge hurdles that determine whether elders are living at home or being relegated to a long-term care facility-for those who can afford it.
POCKETS OF INNOVATION
Through our research, we discovered that pockets of innovation are sprouting up around the country to address the social and physical needs of elders. We chose to focus our work explicitly on visionary individuals and organizations. The field of aging, more than any we have witnessed, is filled with compassionate, dedicated individuals who don't despair at the thought of the looming age boom, but who rise to the occasion with clarity and courage. We came to appreciate that the professionals and family members who care for older adults are the key to how well we age as a society.
Through our work, Ed and I have had to confront directly the age bias that persists in this country. It has been extremely challenging to publish this work because the media simply doesn't want to look at aging unless it falls into one of two extremes: the superseniors who skydive or the destitute elders stranded in nursing homes that warrant dramatic exposes. To get our work published, we have had to fight to convince editors that the nuances of aging are equally compelling, and that the general public actually is interested in this subject.
During one of my early interviews with a woman named Virginia Magrath, she told me that old people feel invisible, as though they become ghosts long before they die. "It must be like when you're a child standing at the counter and the cashier helps everyone else before they help you," she explained. At the time, her husband was dying from a blood clot in his brain. Despite the fact that she was a retired nurse, the doctors spoke directly to her daughters. I would say the doctors ignored Virginia, but to ignore requires a conscious effort, implying that they had noticed her in the first place. Our goal through our work has been to make the Virginias in our midst visible so we can bring the parallel universe of elders back into the intergenerational fold.
Ed and I started this project by identifying a major social issue and approaching it through an objective lens. Over time it became apparent to us that we were peering through the looking glass at our future selves, and the impact was revelatory.
OUR GREATEST CHALLENGE
In the course of our work, we became intimately involved with many of the people we documented. We celebrated birthdays, helped change soiled bed pads and were present for several deaths. But after seven years of fieldwork, our greatest challenge still stands before us. Despite how much Ed and I have learned, it is still just a primer for the real-life situation we currently face. My father, who recently turned 80, is showing a dramatic decline in his cognitive and physical skills. Thanks to our work, not only is his situation familiar to us, but also we are prepared to make major life changes to accommodate his needs. We are the best long-term care insurance plan he has.
Since 1995, our domestic clipping service has harvested three file drawers full of proof that society is indeed undergoing a transformation. These articles demonstrate a growing understandingbeyond supersenior stories-of what it means to grow old and how all of society is beginning to feel the impact. But we have a long way to go if we in the media are really going to serve the best interests of society and all the dedicated professionals who are confronting the demands of aging.
ON BOOKSHELVES, SCREENS AND WALLS
Aging in America: The Years Ahead, with photographs by Ed Kashi and essays and interviews by Julie Winokur, was published recently by PowerHouse Books. A one-hour companion documentary, which premiered in September on San Francisco public television station KQED, will be released nationally on PBS next spring. A traveling exhibition of Aging in America will appear in San Francisco and New York. To view many photographs or learn more about Aging in America: The Years Ahead, including exhibition locations and dates, visit www.aging.msnbc. com or www.talkingeyesmedia.org.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Authors Explore Aging in America-And See Their Future. Contributors: Winokur, Julie - Author. Magazine title: Aging Today. Volume: 24. Issue: 5 Publication date: September/October 2003. Page number: 18. © American Society on Aging Jan/Feb 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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