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Aging Gracefully Poses Challenge for Everyone

June 02, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

The other day I received the current issue of my alumni magazine from the University of Missouri, and it contained the picture of a guy I used to drink beer with when we were both undergraduates there. He had stayed on at Missouri to teach journalism and has just retired. In the picture he looks gaunt and cadaverous and tired. Hell, he looks old.

It always comes as a terrible shock to see someone you remember as young and vital looking slightly decomposed. It's rather like looking into a distorted mirror. If we feel young--as I do--we tend to see ourselves that way, and when we are required to look at contemporaries who are visibly old, we either tend to look away or refuse to see ourselves reflected in that image.

When this column began seven months ago, it was accompanied by a picture of me and a brief biographical note. I still see myself coming off the bench to score the winning basket in high school or leaving Iowa Pre-Flight School with a group of pretty girls tugging at my uniform. What I saw in the picture was a fat, jowly, senior citizen looking acutely uncomfortable in a coat and tie. Since only the latter part of that is really me, I haven't looked at that picture since.

On another page and another day of this section, I do a weekly column called Portraits. Many of the people profiled have been old, and some of them have been reluctant to reveal their age or to be photographed. A couple have simply flat-out refused. This has distressed the editors, who feel they have a constitutional right to know the age of anyone who appears in print, insisting that the specific number is essential to every story. Newspaper editors are delighted with a story that begins: "John Jones, 54, shot and killed his wife Martha, 51, while their son, Tom, 26, and the family dog, Rover, 4, watched."

Well, maybe because I'm old myself, I tend not to crowd people to be specific about their age, which frequently gets me in a little trouble back at the office. In general, there are two groups of people who have no problem revealing their age: the very young--who don't care--and the very old, who are proud of their longevity. That leaves a lot of room in between, and it is sometimes painful, especially for those who have entered their senior years and don't feel like it.

Columnist Ellen Goodman addressed this question in a recent essay in The Times in which she deplored the fact that "growing old gracefully is apparently out of fashion. It's an admission of a defeat rather than the story of a success." She then went into a long list of cosmetic aids to fight the appearance of aging--especially for women--ending with: "As we are offered this expanding array of weapons, we increase our defense budget. And with each item, with each choice, how much harder it becomes to negotiate a peaceful coexistence with our own age."

That would all be well and good if we lived in a society that valued age. But we don't, so the difficulties of growing old gracefully are multiplied many times in the United States of 1988.

If you've read this column more than a few times, you probably know that "grace" is "beauty or charm of form, composition, movement or expression." So growing old gracefully would mean aging with beauty and charm.

Fair enough. I'm for that. But in a society that measures beauty purely by surface appearance rather than inward qualities, that's tough. There's little question that if superficial appearance is the sole arbiter, we look a lot better at 25 than we do at 65. And since youth is the carrot dangled by this society, and a lot of 65-year-olds still feel 25, there's an enormous temptation to try to look 25 as well. It won't work, of course, and sometimes the effort becomes almost pathetic. But it is understandable--and a little sad.

Because of these phony exterior standards, growing old gracefully becomes totally an interior matter. We have to be strong enough to look away from the artifacts of a youth culture to find satisfaction in our time and state of life from within. If what we have to offer in the way of accumulated experience and vision and breadth of perspective is rejected, then we have to applaud those things in ourselves and find our serenity there.

No wonder, given these difficulties, that we don't want to compound them by blatting about age or being forced to look at photographs that catch the surface valleys without the inner peaks. Maybe it shouldn't matter--and surely it doesn't matter--but we all have to arrive at that place in different ways and at different times.

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