Senior Power: A Good Book..and More

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Saturday June 12, 2010 - 09:11:00 PM

A History of Old Age is a good book…a great book, in fact. If it appears to be a mere coffee table book, look closely at the cover -- a color reproduction of an 18th Century painting of the head of a nameless old woman? Or perhaps you agree that Christian Seybold’s ‘Old Woman with Green Scarf’ (1794) has dignity and beauty. A History of Old Age is about old age in literature and old people in history and art. It was Charlotte Perkins Gilman who pointed out that, through literature, we know the past, govern the present, and influence the future. 

Seven contributors examine how thinkers and artists of each epoch in Western history have treated old age. Surprising and fascinating facts emerge about it and the literature and art it has inspired. There’s reassurance as the strength and nobility they have found in the elderly are revealed. 


Editor Pat Thane – she’s at the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research -- begins with “The age of old age,” wherein she considers facts and fiction, old people in the family, and myths of the ages of man [sic]. She asks ‘Are old people despised or admired?’ and ‘How old is old?’ and concludes ‘No one reaches old age without luck.’ The final section, titled “Caring for the old in the twentieth century,” is also written by Thane, who sees a future for old age: 

“What were the effects of the ageing of individuals and societies in the 20th century? … The 20th century did not find the secret of eternal youth, though, as we shall see, the search for it continued…. Modern societies found a new language to describe the stages of ageing. A term coined in France, and wisely used elsewhere, described the period of active old age as the ‘third age,’ following the ‘first age’ of childhood and youth and the ‘second age’ of adult maturity. The later, less active and independent phase of life was the ‘fourth age.’” [page 264] 

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2005 made this vast collection of full-color classic and unique reproductions available outside Great Britain. (With the title, The Long History of Old Age, it was also published by Thames & Hudson in Great Britain.) The Getty Villa, is also worth looking at. If you’re tempted to meander through the full color illustrations of A History of Old Age, do also take time to read this book. You may end up admiring the old person on the cover. 


Ladies in Lavenderwas released in 2004 and opened at the New York Tribeca Film Festival; the DVD is closed-captioned. Neither the title nor its PG-13 rating of “strong caution” to parents is justified.  

The peaceful life of 2 aging (although not “aged”) sisters is changed when they rescue Andrea, a young Polish violinist they find injured, washed ashore near their home. He recovers in their care and later ventures forth on walks in the village, where he becomes friendly with a Russian woman painter-visitor. Villagers are suspicious of any visitors. Ultimately, the sisters attend his musical debut in London. Plot-wise, that’s all there is to it – no crashing waves, too-loud music, complex web of emotions, overdone symbolism, or reliance on impenetrable flashbacks. Above all, no lavender. 

Ursula and Janet (Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, both born in 1934) live a peaceful contented life in their deceased father’s “cottage” (a house, really) on the Cornish coast in pre-World War II England. They are not well-off, although they have bank accounts, a car, radio, maid, and the house. They enjoy their life and the beauty about them, and they have regard for each other. 

Dorcas, the gem of a housekeeper, is played by Miriam Margolyes (1941- ), whose stage credits include The Vagina Monologues. She was the voice of Fly, the dog in Babe, the 1995 Australian film based on the book. She has been included in the Independent on Sunday [UK] Pink List of the most influential gay men and women.  

For Andrea’s character, Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua David Bell (1967- ) performs "Carnival of Venice," "Meditation," "Zabawa Weselna," "The Girl With The Flaxen Hair," "Introduction and Tarantelle Op. 43,” and "Fuga from Sonata No.1 in G Minor BWV 1001." In an experiment initiated by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, Bell donned a baseball cap and played as an incognito street busker at a subway station. It was videotaped on hidden camera; among 1,097 people who passed by, 7 topped to listen, 1 one recognized him. 

The Cornish sea coast vista and village are much the same as pictured 80 years later, in today’s Doc Martin English TV series.Barbara Kidd’s costumes are well researched – women’s clothes especially, right down to the shoes and up to the hats.Ladies in Lavender is based on a 1916 short story of the same title published in Faraway Stories, by William J. Locke (1863 - 1930). It was adapted to the screen and directed by English screenwriter and actor Charles Dance (1946- ), known, especially by women everywhere, for his Guy Perron portrayal in the 1984 The Jewel in the Crown.  


I think of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992) as Sister Age, the title of one of her essays and of the collection of 15 story-essays about aging, originally published when she was 75. Sister Age was Ursula von Ott, a “nagging harpy.” 

On one of Fisher’s stays in Europe, she came across a painting of Ursula in a Zurich shop. It captured her imagination and became the basis for the essay. The woman in the painting came to symbolize for Fisher, the “secret strength” of age, a lodestar to guide her way through her own aging. 

Her books deal primarily with food and its importance in human life, considered from many perspectives: preparation, natural history, culture, philosophy. Her first book, Serve it Forth, was published in 1937.She believed that eating well was just one of the "arts of life" and explored the art of living as a secondary theme in her writing. 

Fisher was born and died in California, but spent much of her adult life in Europe. She was a prolific and well-respected author, writing more than 20 books during her lifetime as well as 2 volumes of correspondence and journals shortly before her death, in Marin County. 




A Celebration for LGBT Older AdultsOn Tuesday, June 15, from 1 to 4 PM, the North Berkeley Senior Center will host its 7th Annual LGBT Pride celebration. The afternoon will be filled with food, entertainment and giveaways. The Center is located at 1901 Hearst Ave., corner MLK ; #25 AC bus stops in front.  

LGBT is an acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.  

This is a significant event because very few senior centers celebrate LGBT elders or provide activities specifically for them. It is produced by the Center, the Coming Out Again Group and Lavender Seniors of the East Bay, and sponsored by the Center’s Advisory Council and Coffee Bar Club. 

LGBT older adults grew up in a time when it was considered sick and criminal to be gay. Many had to hide their sexuality in order to avoid being arrested and institutionalized in addition to being shunned by family, friends, employers, and the community. Today LGBT elders continue to be among the most overlooked, underserved and invisible populations in the nation. For more information about LGBT Pride celebration for older adults, call the North Berkeley Senior Center (510) 981-5190 or Lavender Seniors at (510) 667-9655. 




Helen Rippier Wheeler can be reached at No email attachments; use “Senior Power” for subject.