Jan 27 2012

Wanted: Aging Role Models

This week Toronto artist Meri Collier, whose beautiful line drawings of older women grace a few pages of the book, sent me the link to a 4-minute video featuring Maia Helles, a 95-year-old former Russian ballet dancer. It’s a lovely tribute to a woman who clearly lives by the dictum of use it (or should that be “move it”?) or lose it…

And it reminded me of another inspirational woman who seemed not to let growing old interrupt her rich, creative way of being in the world.

I only got to know Doris Shadbolt during the last few years of her rich and extraordinary life, but she left an indelible impression on me and remains a role model for how I’d like to live out the end of my own. Curator, writer, philanthropist, gracious host, inveterate traveler, and recipient of the Order of Canada, she had enormous grace, intelligence, energy and spirit. Although her physical capacities diminished in her later years, making movement and therefore travel more challenging, her frailties were never the focus of her conversation; she remained completely engaged in the world of art and the art of the world until the day she died. Even though she’s been gone now for seven years, I think of her often and the impact she continued to have on people well into her 80s.

Are there any things that you imagine you’ll stop doing once you get to be a certain age?

Which aspects of aging do you genuinely appreciate in yourself or others?

Can you think of examples you’ve experienced of the phenomenon noticed by researchers that older people are better at managing their emotions?

Among the older people you know, who do you find the most inspirational? Why?

Reading the pieces in I Feel Great About My Hands, do any of the contributors strike you as likely role models for aging? Which one(s) and why?

Can you think of any older people whose ways of resisting or dealing with the aging process serve as cautionary tales — roads down which you don’t want to travel?

What’s your favourite memory of the parent, grandparent or other older role model to whom you feel or felt the closest?

How would you like the young people in your life to describe you to their friends?

Aug 31 2011

Not your typical retirement role model

I have seen my future – and if I’m lucky, it may look a bit like Editta Sherman’s present. The prospect fills me with an astonishing sense of satisfaction.

Ever since my teenage years, I’ve entertained the fantasy that one day I would grow up to live in a large unstructured old style converted warehouse loft apartment. The floors would be hardwood and hard worn. Natural light would flood in from a bank of leaded – and no doubt drafty windows – along one wall, the furniture would be minimal but comfy, and I would have lots of room to dance and make interesting and beautiful things with my hands.

In my youth, I imagined I would realize this ambition sooner rather than later. I saw it as a natural accompaniment to the work I believed I was intended to do in visual art. And even though I didn’t identify as a feminist until a decade after I came of age, there was no man in my picture. (Which is odd, now that I think about it, because I’ve always been pretty attached to having romance in my life. But I envisioned creativity not kids as my destiny and so perhaps the loft took the place in my imagination that was left vacant by the fantasies others had of white picket fences and children.)

And although I’ve spent much of the past two years thinking, writing and speaking about aging, until now, it’s been very difficult for me to conjure up a picture of what I want my own advancing years to look like. (Maybe this is classic denial, and holds for everyone?)

But it’s been years since I had a secure job from which I might yearn to retire (and, correspondingly, a pension that might support me in doing so!) I have no children of my own, and no immediate prospect of even step-grandchildren, either…  No interest in playing golf or cribbage, in moving to a warmer climate… And no inclination to take up bridge or travel a lot more than I already do.

Yet I’ve never thought it likely that I would just keep on keeping on… I have imagined that eventually things would shift into what Jane Fonda refers in her new book, Prime Time, as a “third phase” where things would be different somehow, if not appropriately described as “retirement”. And now, courtesy of Eddita Sherman, I have a picture of a potential final act that’s enormously appealing.

A New York City portrait photographer in her late 90s, Sherman makes a guest appearance in the recent documentary film about iconic New York Times fashion columnist/photographer, Bill Cunningham.  Like Mr. Cunningham, Ms. Sherman lived for half a century in an artist’s studio at Carnegie Hall, only losing her battle to remain there last year. Does she still take photographs? It’s not clear in the film, but her identity as an artist is undeniable. Watching the footage of her inhabiting her studio, I felt a strong emotional tug, and could suddenly envision myself aging in a place where most of the space was given over to a creative laboratory. (Fortunately for me, the love of my life is open to this vision. And in the unfortunate event that he should predecease me, I now have an alternative that holds some allure.)