Even in Florida — especially in Florida — aging is a serious business. In spite of all the jokes and all the feel-good advice, one is still left in a battle with the calendar. Do we take up arms, or do we surrender?
Last August and September, barely three weeks apart, two outstanding women performers died: Lauren Bacall and Joan Rivers. They were born within the same decade, in the same city, New York — Bacall in the Bronx, Rivers in Brooklyn. But in their professional lives, they could not have been farther apart. Bacall was the sultry seducer; Rivers was the brassy clown.
The most fascinating difference between them is the way each e decided to grow old: naturally vs. artificially, wrinkled vs. Botoxed. Two years before she died at 89, Bacall had a photographer take a full-face, unretouched photo of her. It is shocking to some, sad to many. But Bacall would not deny the truth: Her legacy was intact, she had nothing to hide or improve upon. She let nature have its way.
Rivers, on the other hand, claimed to have had hundreds of surgeries, starting when she was still a young woman. Over the decades, her face never aged; it became smoother, tauter, stretched to plastic perfection, so that at 81 she had the eyes, nose, lips and chin that a woman of 30 might envy.
Do we praise Bacall for her honesty, or condemn her for “letting herself go”? Do we praise Rivers for her chutzpah, or condemn her for vulgar vanity?
Both women were telling us something about aging that we are reluctant to acknowledge: It happens. We see ourselves in the mirror every morning, and today’s image is not any different from yesterday’s. Only if we look at last year’s photo, or one from five years before that, do we see any significant change. Then the question arises: What can I do — what should I do — about it?
As a nation, America is not providing helpful answers. Unlike Eastern cultures where the elderly, traditionally, have been respected and revered, America venerates its youth. Blame it on the thrilling post-war baby boom, or the exuberant hippies of the ’60s, or even the breakthroughs in cosmetic surgery that followed, the fact is that youth has been dominant and very well served. Elders have been largely ignored.
And yet, just 15 years from now, the elderly (65-plus) will represent about 20 percent of America’s population. Every day, 8,000 Americans hit that fateful birthday, blow out the candles, and live on!
Poet Dylan Thomas described the dilemma: Should we “go gentle into that good night?” (And accept the indignities of wrinkles and flab?) Or should we “burn and rage?” (And adjust our budget to allow for some aesthetic restoration?)
Clearly, when you look better, you feel better, and people respond to you better. But how much “better” is actually too much, or unnecessary? As a culture, we put too much emphasis on physical appearance (Why are we taking all these selfies?) We are overlooking experience, intelligence and character.
Perhaps the answer is simply this: To see every year as a unique achievement and accept every wrinkle as a unique endorsement. But when that attitude becomes too difficult to maintain, and the furrows too deep to ignore, we know that help is there — a whiff of rejuvenation, a surgeon’s sleight of hand.
Perhaps somewhere between Bacall’s brutal honesty and Rivers’ excessive artifice is where the truth actually lies.
Joan Z. Shore is a Paris-based journalist and author of the book “Saging — How to Grow Older and Wiser.”