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Your Health
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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?

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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