At the West Coast premiere of a new documentary, Over 90 and Loving It, viewers were treated to depictions of vibrant older adults getting married, chopping wood and performing in concerts.
Although it might be tempting to take away the message that such later-life vitality is universally attainable, event panelist Gerald C. Davison, dean of the USC Davis School of Gerontology, suggested a more cautious reading.
“While it is important to see older people as vibrant and active,” he said, “I am concerned that this film can raise expectations that are unrealistic for many older adults and their families.”
Although such extraordinary examples of late-in-life exuberance can encourage older adults to pursue new interests and to consider the many possible life choices still available to them, Davison urged empathy for aging adults who may not enjoy the same physical and mental advantages as those featured in the film.
The segment about Pete Seeger’s continuing creativity as a songwriter and musician moved Davison to say, “It brings to mind the story of the woman who had to have an operation on both her hands to restore movement to them. ‘Will I be able to play the piano, doctor, when you remove the bandages?’ she asked. ‘Of course,’ said the doctor in a reassuring voice. ‘That’s wonderful,’ exclaimed the woman, ‘because I’ve never played the piano before!’ ”
During a panel discussion held after the premiere, Davison also raised the point that while it is important to avoid negative stereotypes of aging as a time of frailty and unhappiness, it also is important to avoid equally harmful “counter-myths” which glamorize the reality of the aging process.
“It is one thing to portray what some over-90 people are capable of; it is quite another thing to assert it as a norm,” Davison said. “I am certainly not derogating messages about healthy and vibrant living beyond one’s 70s. What I am suggesting that what is possible for some very old people is not the same thing as what is possible for the majority.”
Although Davison appreciated the film’s optimism, he suggested that viewers of all ages refrain from using it as a blueprint for the only way one can age and instead use it to start discussions of the real-life limitations and possibilities aging brings.
“Having this type of honest discussion is important because all of society is affected,” he said. “We’re all on this journey together.”