It was May Sarton who wrote “The trouble is, old age is not interesting until one gets there. It’s a foreign country with an unknown language to the young and even to the middle-aged.” I came across the quote in this lovely blog post by Judy Fox, and it’s a metaphor that bears reflection. It reminds me of a reckoning I finally arrived at, long after losing my way in what was to become This Chair Rocks.
My partner and I are just back from a three-week trip to Vietnam, where we encountered people from all over the world, including Finland, South Africa, New Zealand, Luxembourg, Singapore, Canada, Holland, and Moldova. Most were far younger than us, some our age, and a notable few significantly older.
At 50, Karl Pillemer had a revelation about his career. After 25 years as gerontologist, he found himself focused almost entirely on problems like elder abuse and isolation: “the Book of Job for older people,” as he put it at the 2012 Age Boom seminar for journalists. This conformed to the general portrayal of olders as frail and debilitated, and was reinforced by researchers “because focusing on problems is how we get funding.” But not only had this stopped feeling fulfilling, it didn’t jibe with his actual experience, and so an outreach project was born.
Somewhere along the way, it becomes painfully obvious that youth is indeed wasted on the young. “If only we’d known then what we know now,” we muse. We’d have taken that job overseas, dumped that creep sooner, flossed nightly . . . and things would have turned out better.
Jim Lizzio lives right around the corner from where he was born in 1916, in lower Manhattan’s Little Italy. Housing projects and the encroachment of Chinatown have changed it a lot since hung out at Mulberry and Bayard. Now he’s more likely to be spotted at Senior Center over in Knickerbocker Village, but he keeps his visits short. “You sit down, you talk, you play bingo. I’m not that type,” he told me over coffee in his cozy pink living room. “Those people are too old for me. And I’m 93.”