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Elizabeth Wolfson: The Best Exotic Life Ahead

Close your eyes and envision yourself 20 years from now. What do you see?

By Elizabeth Wolfson |

If the act of conjuring an image of your elder self presents a challenge, you are not alone. Most of us have difficulty imagining our future, and few of us want to invite the image of our bodies in decline. This is understandable, as we are the consumers of a culture that invests heavily in the erasure of wrinkles, the preservation of youth and the marginalization of older adults. Unlike some cultures where the beauty and wisdom of elders are affirmed and/or venerated, we are victims of a cultural framework that deprives us of an inspired look ahead.

Elizabeth Wolfson
Elizabeth Wolfson

It is possible this mindset is shifting as aging baby boomers swell in numbers and increasingly drive cultural mores, but archaic habits perpetuated by the media persist. For example, a recent New York Times fashion article casually describing what “women of a certain age” would be wearing left me puzzled as I tried to grasp precisely what ages were implied. Considering the vast possibilities (55 to 100?), I wondered at the intentional vagueness of the term, leaving the reader to presume that these “older” women would never want their ages identified and that whatever that “certain age” was, is better left uncertain. No wonder we have trouble imagining our later years!

Yet, imagine is exactly what we need to do for every age and at every stage, Jonah Lehrer urges in his bestselling book on creativity. As we inevitably age, it is important to imagine our future, and in this way lay the groundwork to prepare for what may be ahead — as best as possible. Imagining your aged self and future possibilities is the difference between being passively pulled along with the current or becoming fully engaged in what’s next. Each one of us can become “an activist” in our own lives, as Betty Friedan implored in the Fountain of Age (1993).

As someone who prefers to empower myself and whose profession is dedicated to the empowerment of others, I have been actively researching the question of what constitutes and leads to healthy aging. With this in mind, I have developed a program in Healthy Aging at Antioch University that trains psychologists and marriage and family therapists in supporting healthy aging.

The creation of that pioneering program is timely as the older adult demographic expands with unprecedented speed into record-breaking percentages of our population. (Thirteen percent of the population today is age 65 or older.  There are currently 70 million boomers in their 50s and 60s, and for the next 19 years about 10,000 people a day will turn 65.)

The changing demographic is bound to influence popular culture, which may be reflected in the popularity of a recent film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This film defies media’s traditional ban on portraying the struggles of older adults and offers multifaceted complex narratives of what may happen in the lives of those of “a certain age.” Depicting the good, the bad and the ugly, the film ultimately ends (spoiler alert) with a message of strength and hope. The film indicates that not only are there “interesting times” ahead, but that aging can be downright fun.

The adventure begins when each of the film’s characters, in one way or another, gets kicked out of their former life through some of the age-related events of retirement, illness, job loss or death of a spouse. In each situation, a new adventure/opportunity presents itself, leading to circumstance where everything becomes “foreign and uncomfortable.” (The film actually takes them to a foreign country, which is symbolic of the discomfort most people do realistically experience in strange, new settings).

As the story unfolds, we observe how the unique way in which each person manages the change determines how his or her personal narrative unfolds, as one character blogs: “Old habits die hard and new ones form. … It’s like a wave — resist it and you will be knocked over, dive into it and you will swim out the other side. The challenge is to cope — and not just cope, to thrive.”

Indeed, this character who decides to blog about her experience has just lost her husband and is shocked not just by his death but by the post-humus discovery of his deceptions that left her financially bankrupt. We watch the poignant evolution of this previously dependent woman as she attempts a clumsy yet determined pathway into her newly independent life. Although she is told when applying for a job that “it is not for her but for ‘ambitious young people,’” we root for her resiliency as she declares, “I don’t want to grow older, to be condescended to, marginalized by the society.”

With similar trepidation and a smattering of recognition, we observe the challenges for each of these characters alongside the contrasting attitudes and approaches with which each of them manages the unfamiliar terrain of later stage life.

One character’s unhappiness and unwillingness to try new things is unyielding and we are painful witnesses to the jarring contrast of her personality and that of her husband. The wife spends her time complaining incessantly and refuses to budge from a stationary, and what she deems to be a comfortable and safe, spot. When the husband returns from a day’s outing declaring that it has been “spectacular,” she responds with disinterest and disdain. She is resigned to life ahead, at one point declaring, “Its over. All we are good for is a beige house with a beige rug on a corner lot.” Sadly, this character never adjusts to the “new world” and the marriage falls apart, ostensibly so that she can perpetuate her unhappiness elsewhere and the husband is free to cultivate a better situation that provides love and happiness.

Like him, the others fare better as they embody two demonstrated determinants of healthy aging: flexibility and a focus on the positive. One character is forced to confront her lifetime biases against people from cultures other than her own. We learn how this character’s life was derailed when, after dedicating her life as housekeeper to one family, she was casually told she was “no longer useful” and replaced by a younger person. Although at first undone by this and the hip replacement that confines her to a wheelchair, she gathers strength through keen powers of observation, fortitude and innovation as she comes to terms with her biases and finds a creative means of empowering herself while helping others.

The search for love is a central theme in the film, and in this respect is a dramatic and welcome departure from most films depicting elders. The character deceived in her marriage learns that the essence of true partnership entails a sharing of each other’s internal life. Another character, declaring that he “just wants to feel young again, to feel needed just for one night,” delights everyone as he succeeds in making this happen while finding companionship in the process.

One character reunites with a long, lost, unrequited love denied him because of the cultural taboo against homosexuality. After reuniting with his soulmate, he declares that he “has never been happier” and then drops dead. This inspires our blogger’s thoughtful musings on death: “Do we grieve for the dead or our own loss that we are mourning?” She also offers the pragmatic observation that if you “put enough old people together in one place, it’s inevitable that one of us dies.” The film does not shy away from reminding us that in the course of facing our aging we must inevitably face the reality of death.

The message of this film is arguably not so much about aging but about life, since the secrets to healthy aging are the same as the secrets of healthy living. In the film as in life, the multiple way things evolve are often not as we plan, and yet, good things happen if unexpected events are met with positive attitude and flexible response, as our blogger notes:

“The only real failure is the failure to try, and the only measure of success is how we cope with disappointment, and try we must … we get up in the morning we do our best — nothing else matters..The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing.”

The Greek Chorus of the plot is embodied in the floundering and well-meaning young fellow who is the inherited proprietor of the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” in over his head and optimistically/naively determined to make things work. His “coming of age” occurs when he learns to connect more authentically with himself, his love interest and others by acknowledging his vulnerabilities and learning to accept help. And who does not benefit from those kinds of insights? His business plan to “outsource old age” is not a bad one, albeit a comical and somewhat sad comment on a world unprepared for the growing needs of elders. It is the young one who has the final say as he repeatedly reminds us: “Everything will be all right in the end, and if it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”

This wisdom folded into comedy is a simple essential truth. While there is life, there is possibility. When we are thrown off track, we need to move forward and “do our best.” As this wonderful slice of life story has shown us, positive attitude and willingness to take risks makes us activists in our own lives and in creating the best exotic life ahead.

— Elizabeth Wolfson, Ph.D., LCSW, is chair of the Master’s in Clinical Psychology program at Antioch University and in private practice in Santa Barbara. Dr. Wolfson has been a licensed practicing psychotherapist for more than 26 years and is the author of several published articles. Dr. Wolfson is a founder of the recently launched Santa Barbara Village, a community membership organization supporting elders in their homes. Most recently, Dr. Wolfson developed the new Concentration in Healthy Aging within the Master’s in Clinical Psychology program at Antioch University Santa Barbara.




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» on 07.17.12 @ 02:28 PM

Re: the phrase “a woman of a certain age”:

New York Times Magazine
IN LANGUAGE; A Woman of a Certain Age
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
Published: July 02, 1995

HOW OLD IS A woman of a certain age?

Only a Nosy Parker would try to find out. But the expression is becoming androgynous, and the age seems to be creeping upward.

Sidney Wade, a woman who lives in Gainesville, Fla., reports that she was complaining to a friend, Debora Greger, about a loss of hair: “My friend remarked that we, as women of a certain age, were prone to a number of peculiar developments. At first I was surprised by her use of the phrase to describe us (we are mildly ripening), remembering it from my more youthful days in France as an insulting kind of polite elocution but one that remains rather wonderful and precise.”

Then Ms. Wade was stunned to see a headline in The New York Times “3 Explorers of a Certain Age, Scaling Mountains and More” about three men in their 80’s. “Reeling, I reported this to Debora, who supposes that the phrase itself seems to have developed a pronounced middle-aged spread. Is this so? I hope not.”

The phrase, in English, can be cited to 1754: “I could not help wishing,” wrote an anonymous essayist in Connoisseur magazine, “that some middle term was invented between Miss and Mrs. to be adopted, at a certain age, by all females not inclined to matrimony.” (This was two centuries pre-Ms.)

The certain age suggested spinsterhood; the poet Byron in 1817 wrote, “She was not old, nor young, nor at the years/Which certain people call a certain age,/Which yet the most uncertain age appears.” Five years later, in a grumpier mood, he returned to the phrase: “A lady of a ‘certain age,’ which means Certainly aged.” Charles Dickens picked it up in “Barnaby Rudge”: “A very old house, perhaps as old as it claimed to be, and perhaps older, which will sometimes happen with houses of an uncertain, as with ladies of a certain, age.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defined that sense of certain as “which it is not polite or necessary further to define.” That was the sense meant by William Dean Howells when he wrote of “gentlemen approaching a certain weight.” The special sense reverses the literal meaning of the word certain, which is “fixed, definite” (much as “I could care less” means “I could not care less”).

The phrase was repopularized in a 1979 book by the psychotherapist Lillian B. Rubin, “Women of a Certain Age: The Midlife Search for Self,” in which midlife spanned 35 to 54.

Reached in San Francisco, Dr. Rubin, whose book indicates she is now in her early 70’s, was surprised to learn of the long English history of the phase because “it has a long history in French, where it refers to women of fortyish and thereabouts who are able to initiate boys and young men into the beauties of sexual encounters. The early use in English seems to be about spinsterhood, but the French meaning has nothing to do with marriage.”

In French, the phrase has erotically or sexually charged overtones. “It comes from a society where sexuality is freer,” Dr. Rubin notes, “and more understood as an important part of human life.”

The phrase in French is femmes d’une certaine age. The term, however, can apply to either sex. Without the certain, the phrase un homme d’un age translates literally as “a man of an age” and is defined in the Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary as “a man of advanced years.”

And now to the point: is that certain age getting older?

“When I wrote the book in 1979,” Dr. Rubin says, “the ‘women of a certain age’ were in their late 30’s and early 40’s. I think that has changed with the baby boomers and the lengthening of the life span. I’d say the ‘certain age’ has now moved to the age of 50 or 55.”

Look at it this way: late 30’s or early 40’s is no longer that “certain” age; it’s moved up a decade. The good news is that 40 is still young, at least linguistically. That’s how it seems to a language maven of a certain weight and getting long in the tooth.

Which brings us to long in the tooth, which I used in a political column in an unkind reference to vigorous Senator Bob Dole. (The first user was William Makepeace Thackeray in an 1852 novel: “She was lean, and yellow, and long in the tooth; all the red and white in all the toyshops of London could not make a beauty of her.”) In my piece, I was impelled by wordmavenhood to give the derivation of the expression: “As horses age, their gums recede, making their teeth appear longer.” My source was the Oxford English Dictionary: “displaying the roots of the teeth owing to the recession of the gums with increasing age; hence gen., old.”

This folk wisdom about the illusion of tooth-lengthening was promptly challenged by Michael Brisbane McCrary, former Hong Kong polo player and now a squire in Hunter, N.Y.: “Horses actually do get ‘long in the tooth.’ It is not receding gums; their teeth continue to grow out (like beavers, and there is a word for it beginning with ‘ex-’) throughout their lives until the teeth actually fall out.”

Mr. McCrary (his wife is Jane Buckle; her long-panted-for book, “How to Massage Your Dog,” is scheduled for publication this fall) continues: “The growth of the horses’ teeth is required because they would wear down in the process of eating in a natural setting. As the teeth grow out, lines show; this is how one usually tells the age of a horse. And this is the background to the phrase ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’; i.e., if it is a gift, don’t ask how old it is.”

That moved me to call the National Zoo. I don’t call the Bronx Zoo anymore; any zoo that calls itself a “wildlife center” cannot be trusted. (A spokesman at our national zoological park, Mike Morgan, remembered me as the one who revealed the reason that pandas have reduplicating names like Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing they can’t hear well and zoo keepers have to call them twice.)

It seems that Mr. McCrary could be right and all of us lexicographers could be wrong. “As horses age,” noted Dr. Richard Montali, one of the National Zoo’s veterinarians, “their teeth actually do continue to grow for some time. The incisors appear to look longer, but it’s mainly because the angle of the teeth changes. Instead of perpendicular growth, the teeth angle out as they grow and wear.”

Maybe the gums recede a little as the growing teeth angle out; that’s why horses’ teeth reveal their age. As a result of receiving this new information, and with deference to animal rights groups, I will no longer refer to old horses as being long in the tooth. They are horses of a certain age.
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