Invisible People

This past summer I saw an old friend of mine in New York, a woman I had met shortly after arriving in the city years ago. On several occasions Nancy and I had worked together. Our conversation was warm, affectionate, biographical. Catching up on one another, as it were, and then onto the turns and curves in our friends’ lives.

There was a brief pause. And then suddenly, shifting direction, in a low, angry voice, she said to me: You know what I hate about growing old in New York? It’s how I have suddenly become invisible. At parties; in restaurants; walking through the streets. It’s infuriating and I can’t seem to do anything about it.

I was surprised at the intensity; but also at the statement itself. My friend Nancy is in her mid 60s; she is a successful documentary film-maker, with awards, accomplishments, friends. She had started out as a film editor, moved to camerawoman and director, and now had her own film company. She seemed always engaged in a project, always at work. Someone I would describe as an intelligent, active, attractive woman.

Then she laughed. You know, people my age are even invisible on television. Nowhere to be seen on “Friends” or “Sex and the City”; we’re visible only in nursing homes (“The Sopranos”) or dying in hospitals (“E.R.”). Do you think they’re trying to tell us something?

“Look, don’t blame me,” my TV writer friend Hilary said, when I confronted her on the subject the following week in L.A. “I write what the market wants. It doesn’t want sit- coms or dramas involving people over 60 because the advertisers won’t buy such programs. And they won’t buy them because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that older people have already settled on their consumer choices, whether they be cars, hair shampoo or breakfast cereal.”

In short, she concluded, ads are seen as not likely to alter their purchases. It doesn’t matter how many millions are out there. On TV, they’re mostly invisible. It is our hi-tech way of setting the elderly afloat on an ice raft.

Given the numbers, and the prediction that life expectancy will only increase, the tendency to set aside the over-60 or 65 part of the population strikes me as outrageous. And, not incidentally, a bit like shooting ourselves in the foot. In 1960, for example, there were approximately 16.7 million people in the United States over 65. In those days, the focus seemed to be on retirement — at least for those in the middle class who had planned and saved enough.

But much has changed these past 40 years. Life expectancy has jumped to 76 in America (In 1900 we were supposed to live out our lives by age 47). There are also now 34.5 million Americans over 65, with the anticipation that number will double within the next 30 years. What are we going to do with all these marginalized people? All these “invisible” men and women, a good number of whom are the wealthiest in our society?

Some of course will be “less than wealthy” and will require medical care and housing. They are likely to be a major fiscal burden on their children and the body public as well. That of course is one reason we do not want to see them, either on TV or in the flesh.

But the others, those in reasonable good health, are both consumers and potential contributors to our society. Today more of them are looking for ways to function productively — as teachers, volunteers, students, or beginners in a new career. They are also asking to be included, they want to become visible.

Obviously part of the responsibility rests with the “retirees” themselves, the post-65s. Some have already taken steps to become fully engaged participants. In our own community, Richard Gunther, 74, and a member of the Jewish Journal Board of Directors, has created a Legacy Award Program that the American Association of Retired People (AARP) has adopted. Under that program, grants along with recognition are made to senior volunteers around the country who are making significant contributions to their local community. In essence they serve as statewide models. Gunther reviews all the nominees and helps makes the final selection.

He is involved as well in several endeavors aimed at the 65-plus population and has pointed out (to, among others, Presidential candidate Albert Gore’s task force) programs that are presently underway. These include: Foster Grandparents, Retired Senior Volunteer Program, Habitat for Humanity and Experience Corps.

All of these are directed at retirees viewed somewhat as a separate group. The broader, more structural aim, I hope, will include the rest of society as we try to utilize the mind and energy of our seniors. Here some of the control falls to those of us who are the gatekeepers, who control access to worlds both professional and social.

Years ago I owned a summer home in Stonington, Conn. It was a small (fewer than a 1,000 people) New England village perched on the water’s edge about five miles from Rhode Island. I was in my early 30s. And what I loved about my village life during those summers was that my friendships were filled with people who were contemporaries, but also who ranged in age from 21 to 80. During those years I attended weddings and funerals, listened to descriptions of Scott Fitzgerald from a classmate of his at Princeton, and to a narrative about Nathaniel West in Bucks County from one of my dearest friends, who began by telling me, “Pep West, I knew him well. He was my wife’s lover.”

My life was richer in large measure because the elderly were an integral, vivid part of it. As all of our lives can be. — Gene Lichtenstein