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Beauty,Spring 2005
Fifth Web Papers
On Serendip

The Beauty of Age

Megan Monahan

Our fast-paced modern culture has become utterly obsessed with that which is new. In a society where clothing trends barely last through the season there is little reverence for that which is aged. Though this desire to be cutting-edge has permeated almost all aspects of American life the most tragic effect is the resulting ageism that our society harbors. It is not an open hatred like homophobia or racism but more a lack of respect and an ideology that senior citizens have lost their value as human beings. The concept of respect for one's elders has become an antiquated notion itself but other cultures have a deep admiration for their more mature individuals.
As a concept, ageism was introduced in 1969 by Robert Butler, director of the National Institute on Aging and it has come to define any discrimination for or against an individual based upon their age. At the worst the elderly are horribly discriminated against and at the best they are ignored because it is a practice considered acceptable by our culture. We segregate the elderly to nursing and retirement homes in an effort to discard them in order to not have to be around them; for, we fear them as a reminder that we too will be aged one day. These homes are notorious for their neglect of those they are supposedly helping and commonly face lawsuits as a result. Years ago families would keep elderly relatives living with them at home but we have allowed ourselves to believe that our time is too important to be bothered by the old. Ironically, the largest proportion of the very old (aged 75 and over) can be found in the United States.
It also appears that this disregard shown to the elderly in America is prevalent in Great Britain as well. According to a study done by a charity called Help the Aged, elderly patients face discrimination and poor care in accident and emergency facilities. They say the conditions have reached an "unacceptable level of care". In one particular case highlighted by the charity, a 77-year-old man waited for three hours in "appalling agony" in a Surrey, England accident and emergency unit despite his having advanced stomach cancer. He then died four days later. His daughter told Help the Aged that her father was not allowed to lie down because there were no trolley beds available.
Even our language is riddled with such colloquialisms as "geezer," "old fogey," "old maid," "dirty old man," and "old fart" that promote negative concepts of the elderly. The Japanese language has a specific word for the beauty that comes with age, sabi.. The term refers to the concept that changes due to use, age, or wear may make an object more beautiful as well as more valuable. This incorporates an appreciation of the various cycles of life and the careful, artful mending of damage. This term has been combined with another Japanese word, wabi, into the phrase wabi-sabi, which means, "a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional. ... The closest English word to wabi-sabi is probably "rustic".... Things wabi-sabi are unstudied and inevitable looking ... unpretentious ... Their craftsmanship may be impossible to discern." This type of expression would be used to describe the beauty of a cracked pot, tarnished metal, or even the wrinkles on an old woman's face.
The need for perfection and newness has not affected the Japanese as it has Americans and this appreciation of that which is mature ought to be adopted in this country. Instead of seeing senior citizens as worn out or out of touch with the modern world, perhaps a new set of ideas could be put into place purporting the elderly as priceless sources of wisdom and life experience. Everyone is so scared of aging and becoming irrelevant, but growing old needs to be perceived as an honor.
Perhaps this is the result of our media and Hollywood but, "nearly 90 million American consumers currently use or have used products or procedures in an attempt to reduce their visible signs of aging." Also, if they had it their way, Americans would prefer to look considerably younger than they actually are. With men, the "ideal" age to be is 36 while the average age of the men surveyed was 49. As for women, the ideal age is 34 but the average age of the women surveyed was 47. Survey respondents also agreed that a youthful appearance is an important factor for professional success. Fifty-two percent of women and fifty percent of men felt that way. Women were more likely than men to view a youthful appearance as an important factor in personal happiness as well since 37 percent of women believed that as compared to only 28 percent of men.
With all the ageism in the United States it is not wonder that everyone wants to reverse the effects of aging. Even the current political system is attempting to further neglect the retirement community of our country. President George W. Bush's proposed Social Security reform would privatize the system and therefore leave the elderly community with fewer means of supporting themselves during their "golden years." Millions of seniors rely on their social security checks for some if not all of their income and to deprive them of that would be a direct slight the senior community.
Beauty is indeed all in the eye of the beholder, so why is it so difficult for us to see the beauty of the elderly. Relationships with other people as well as life events are some of the most beautiful things anyone can experience so it follows that the elderly would be an amazing source of beauty. Their lives have been so rich simply by virtue of existing for so long; and yet, they go untapped as the astonishing resources to times long gone that they are.
I remember a particular incident from just a few weeks ago when my friend and I were waiting in line at the local Wendy's to get some food. They was an extremely old couple in front of us who were taking forever to order and getting confused about what it was they actually were doing. It was no bother at first but then the scene dragged on and it was obvious that the workers behind the counter were on their last nerve with the couple. I found myself getting quite annoyed as well and wishing that they would hurry up even though I knew it was selfish of me to think my food order was more important than theirs.
Eventually, they worked it all out and everyone got their meals. I then proceeded to forget the couple entirely. However, during a lull in the conversation between my friend and me while eating, we overheard a bit of the couple's conversation. The man said to the woman (who I assume was his wife) that he had graduated high school seventy years ago that day. He seemed to be in total awe of that fact but I believe I was even more astonished. I could not ever fathom having lived that much life and suddenly I was flooded by intense feelings of guilt for wishing that they had not been in the restaurant forcing me to wait an extra few minutes for my hamburger.
Many believe that with age comes a loss of physical beauty but it is really only a necessary part of living. Everyone grows old eventually so it would simply be best to come to terms with aging. This is perhaps why ageism is so rampant, yet so nonsensical since it will affect everyone no matter what race, class, or gender.

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