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What Are Old People For?
How Elders Will Save the World
by William H. Thomas, M.D.

From Part One

A Warning

I opened the morning paper and there it was, a two-column advertisement made to resemble an advice column:

Reader Looks Younger…Now Dating Again!
Dear Patty: You’ve changed my life. I’m a “Baby Boomer,” divorced, wasn’t even dating. I even began to see those dreaded facial wrinkles and crow’s feet…I just felt terrible. Then I read your column about that pharmacist’s miracle discovery…CF-6 Facial Cream. Well, I bought a jar and amazing things began to happen. That cream changed my life! I do look younger…feel great…and I’m dating again, thanks to you!

The advertisement, and its chirpy optimism, would be bizarre if it were not so common. These messages are everywhere. Behind their cheerful facade is a warning: There is danger just over the horizon. Old age lies in wait, eager to steal our youth. There is no need for alarm, though. We can hold the threat at bay; our youthfulness can be protected. There is hope. The “pharmacist’s miracle” offers us a shield against old age. Youth, or at least the appearance of youth, can be had for just $24.95 a jar.

Billions of dollars are spent every year on such remedies, and with good reason. We live in a profoundly ageist society. The post-World War II generation, in particular, has lionized youth, making its power, energy, and beauty the standard against which we all are to be measured. Gradually, however, the dark side of that obsession is being revealed. We see, with increasing clarity, the calamities that a youth-obsessed society is willing to impose on the old.

Like MacArthur’s old soldiers, the aged among us fade away. Strength and bravery, no matter how plentiful, offer no refuge from the passage of time. The decades gradually reduce the old to shadows of their former selves. At best, this new silhouette can be charming—a twinkling eye or kindly smile taking the place of youth’s vital glow. More often, though, old people are exposed to a bigoted ageism that is openly expressed and widely accepted. They are herded into complexes and facilities that are cut off from the rest of the community—and are expected to pay for the privilege. They can be confined to institutions, often for life, and must endure this loss of freedom with little or no hope of release. To be old in contemporary society is to inhabit a ghetto without borders. Rich or poor, man or woman, sage or fool, there is no refuge. The bias against old age infects the elderly as well; many older people actively profess the superiority of youth and the young.

I am a physician and my specialty is working with older people. Most of my patients are very old, so old that they first noticed their own facial wrinkles more than forty years ago. Nostrums like CF-6 hold no attraction for them, but these products do interest me. Antiwrinkle creams form the most visible element of a deep and dangerous fault line that cuts through our society. No matter what ingredients are listed on the label, wrinkle cures always include unspoken threats and hollow promises. The multibillion-dollar antiwrinkle industry stokes and then profits from our fear.

Every morning all across America, people peer into bathroom mirrors, searching for signs of age. No line, no blemish is overlooked. We dread the appearance of those little lines at the corners of our mouths and eyes, and then we console ourselves with the thought that, really, they are hardly noticeable. Still we know the truth. We are getting older—every day one day older. Rarely do we set aside our insecurities long enough to ask, “What are wrinkles? Where do they come from and what do they really mean?” Perhaps if we understood them better, we might fear them less.
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