Aging is something I think about – a lot. Like many American fiftysomethings, my growing older reveries often drift to the physical/cosmetic. I feel helpless without reading glasses. My knees crackle. I can’t find my jawline. My skin bruises and tears and freckles easily. My waistline is living somewhere else. I depend on my Aveda fairy godmother to chemically transform the white into chestnut strewn with dark copper every four weeks. I can’t handle doughnuts, late nights, earrings, gin or roller coasters like I used to. When in the company of a critical mass of aging men and women, conversations often morph to moaning and snarking about weight control, exercise, lotions, potions, chemicals, fillers, peels, surgeries, treatments, who does and who doesn’t, who should and who shouldn’t.
This energy directed at exterior trivia hijacks what is really important about growing older. Preparing for this Fulbright experience has forced me to honestly evaluate attitudes toward seniors and to look deeply at how we value the elderly. Looking beyond the mirror isn’t very pretty.
I live in the same city as my father, a widower of almost 90. He lives alone, is a retired whipsmart geophysicist whose three offshore discoveries made fortunes for others and who later worked a tireless and tender nurse to my dying mother. He golfs several times a week, mows his own lawn (and mine), is a weather savant, grows glorious tomatoes, shops, cooks, works crosswords, ardently follows football and baseball, bakes the world’s best chocolate chip cookies, grills a perfect ribeye for me every Sunday, obsesses over a good puzzle and is a chili dog connoisseur. He is keenly observant, sharp and precise. Although he has been retired for three decades, he could have easily worked through his seventies. I regularly tell him that I am planning on having inherited his longevity gene. As remarkable an elderly American as he is, my dad is an advanced senior. He will be living alone in a city without family for months and I am anxious about this.
In preparing for my travels, I’ve not only explored the nature of creativity and how schools can nurture it in our youth, I’ve had intimate opportunities to explore American attitudes toward seniors and how we value our elderly. I’ve had time to think about these attitudes from several viewpoints, including a comparison of our attitudes toward the young. Several of my Fulbright Finland colleagues are traveling with their families. As we emailed back and forth concerning our plans and progress, my fellow Fulbrighters have shared their hopes and concerns for their children as they examine the most suitable options available. It is wonderful that the sons and daughters of my colleagues will become a part of a society that has thoughtfully considered how to help each young person play, explore and find his or her passion. My admiration for what I understand about these thoughtful supports for the young leads me to wonder what kinds of systems are in place for elderly Finns.
I’ve lived internationally and have been struck by the different attitudes across the globe toward the elderly. When my own sons were in primary school, I lived for a few years in Ravenna, Italy. At first, I was impressed by how many aging Italians seemed to be out and about. I admired impeccably dressed seniors as they carefully enjoyed their afternoon promenades. Clad in black, they supervised the youngsters at the park. In street cafes, park benches, or balconies facing the streets, they played chess in the evenings and kept the pigeons fed on the piazzas. They didn’t miss mass; they regularly had the priest over for coffee and cena. At first, I wondered if Italians just lived much longer than Americans. After a few months, I realized this wasn’t the case- what I discovered was that Italians just didn’t hide their elderly like Americans did. I couldn’t find the equivalent of a nursing home in Ravenna and recall the shock on a neighbor’s face when I asked her where these were. I was told that older Italians lived with their extended families, helping out with child care, remaining socially and physically active and visible. This was one of my first Ugly American lessons- the Italians taught me many more.
By contrast, in America once a person’s work life is over, the quality of life is a function of how much money has been reserved. If resources are available, this is the time many choose to travel. In comfortable shoes, colorful billowing shirts, and armed with expensive gadgets, these seniors remain visible for a short period. Retirement traveling is usually done in large protected groups, where they are herded like obedient children to Macchu Picchu for a thirty minute stay-on-the-path-and-take-pictures experience or a tour bus drive-by of Theodoric’s tomb. There are also those brave few of our elderly who keep working. Business owners have control over their retirement, but for others, many jobs are hard to come by as we age. Older people make many of us uncomfortable. A few Americans, like my mother, find creative freedom in retirement and begin a wonderful new life of self-expression. My mother was a textile artist and I have beautiful memories of her spending happy hours during her last years at her sewing machine and with her needle. Some of our elderly are able to stay in the houses they have worked for and loved for decades or even a lifetime. When they can no longer live independently, financial reserves again dictate the quality of options available. Assisted living and retirement communities can range from spa-like luxury retreats to decaying sci-fi-like detention centers. It seems that America is on the far end of the valuing-our-elderly spectrum. In a place that argues loudly about issues related to racial, religious, gender, marriage, disability, special needs, ethnic, and income equality and justice, the elderly are oddly left out. Their worries- like losing driving privileges- impact their lives significantly and have few effective alternative solutions. Through my father, I have seen how many Americans prefer to keep our elderly invisible.
I wonder about the Finnish approach- where is Finland positioned in this elderly continuum? In a country widely admired for its equality ethic, is everyone really equal, even the elderly? In a place where all work is valued and respected, what happens when one is too old to work? Where do the eldest Finns live- with family? In group homes? How do the eldest Finns still contribute and continue to grow? How are measures in place for the eldest Finns financed? How do the elderly perceive their treatment? Is this a time that is eagerly anticipated or looked to with some dread? What kinds of things do they enjoy doing? Do they stay active socially and do they grow creatively? How visible are these eldest citizens?
Soon I will explore how Finns have structured a learning environment that supports each child’s natural sense of creativity. I wonder if this environment is healthy for not only children, not only students, but adults and the elderly. An environment where everyone can continue to grow and create. An environment where no one is invisible.
A sample of my mother’s textile art
This blog is not an official Fulbright Program blog and the views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.