The concept of “successful aging” has been around for some time, and has gained increasing currency over the past few years. It is fueled by oodles of books, films, academic articles, newspaper columns, blogs, and social media musings. But how does one measure successful aging? I’m going to do some limb-walking here and suggest that most measurements of successful aging are inherently ageist. They are ageist because they deprecate the very nature of growing old. I believe that to avoid being ageist, any measurement of successful aging must include, if not highlight, an acceptance of the natural decline of one’s body, and one’s eventual death. This may sound counter-intuitive, so bear with me here.
Most current measurements of successful aging are based on one’s ability to remain vital, independent and healthy–qualities that are often associated with being youthful. When successful aging is defined through the lens of youthful vitality, that definition falls into ageism because a young age becomes the very measurement by which we gauge a successful old age. Even if we take the concept of youthfulness out of the measurement entirely, we are still left with a problematic yardstick. Measurements of successful aging that employ the commonly understood meaning of health and vitality inevitably encounter a conundrum: if you live long enough to experience the deterioration inevitably brought on by an aging body, you will fail at aging successfully! The only way such a measurement works is if you die, or choose to die, before the worst of the bodily decline sets in. (For a well-researched exposition of the common interpretations of successful aging, and a challenge to those interpretations, see the book, Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession.)
When successful aging is defined through the lens of youthful vitality, that definition falls into ageism because a young age becomes the very measurement by which we gauge a successful old age.
So, what about films that deal with aging? Most films that deal with aging and older characters inherently accept the ageist yardsticks of successful aging. They present aging as something to be feared and fought against. Aging itself becomes a protagonist. There are, however, a few films that present acceptance and adaptation as part of aging successfully. In my review of the film, Still Mine, starring James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold, I note how this film beautifully reflects the dance we must all do as we age–balancing the strength of will to resist the infirmities of an aging body with the need to accept the infirmities of an aging body. Another recent film that allows for the acceptance of aging’s inevitable debilitation is Dick Johnson Is Dead. In my review of this creative documentary, I reflect on how the filmmaker uses a rich combination of humor and introspection to help her and her father deal with his mortality and his increasing memory loss.
I keep hoping for more films that reflect a non-ageist measurement of successful elderhood–knowing when to resist and overcome, and when to gracefully accept, the debilities brought on by living into an old age.
– Jim Vanden Bosch