Diversity and Strength of Aging on the Covers of the Gerontologist
Looking back at my published work on the covers of The Gerontologist, two underlying themes are diversity and strength in old age. Any student of aging knows that the older population is more diverse than ever, with differences expressed in color, culture, identity, social standing, educational level, and economics. As a geriatrician I’ve learned that strength in body and spirit are a requirement of reaching old age, and this is what I try to express. This post will look back on my twenty years of covers, reviewing selected images that reflect these themes.
Manuel Rodstein was a geriatrician, cardiologist, and gentle scholar who published over a hundred papers on the aging heart. He was one of my mentors when I worked at the Jewish Home and Hospital for Aged, and I published this image on the April, 1996 issue of TG. He is standing in front of his portrait that appeared in a medical journal many years earlier.
Wandering among throngs of young people in downtown Tokyo I met this lady wearing brightly colored clothing pushing a walker decorated with flowers and ribbons. We could not communicate through the language barrier, but she counted on her fingers the number of years she had lived, which was over 80. She was clearly proud of her age, and I published her photo on TG for the August, 2000 issue.
Most people haven’t heard about the Senior Pro Rodeo, a group of retired cowboys and cowgirls who enter competitions across the American West and Canada. I went to several events and met a number of participants. Harry Thurston and his horse Handy were an expert team in the roping competition, and I met them at a rodeo in Missoula, Montana. A retired saddle maker, Harry’s eyesight was not great but his agility in his 70’s was amazing. I published this pic of Harry and Handy on TG in February 2004.
I traveled to several Native American locations to photograph tribal elders. This is more difficult than it sounds because they are often suspicious of outsiders, and the life expectancy of Native Americans is years shorter than the general population in the United States. When visiting the town of Zuni in southern Arizona I was introduced to Winifred Coweyuka, who was so old nobody knew her true age. She had huge gnarled hands and was almost completely deaf. I published this photo with her visiting nurse on TG in April 2005.
Back in the 1990’s I spent a lot of time wandering the Catskill mountains with my dog Parsley. I came across an aging hermit in a dilapidated cabin in the woods, who spent his life as a construction worker traveling the United States building bridges and dams. His rugged face told the story of his life but his feet were so swollen he couldn’t wear shoes, and I wondered how he got by in the winter. On a later visit the cabin was gone, with only bushes and saplings in its place. I published his photo on TG in October 2005.
I wanted to find aging circus performers, so I went to south Florida to a town called Gibsonton where the circuses park for the winter. There I met Mr. Poobah, who spent his life on the road performing a fire-eating act in sideshows across America. He was so thrilled when I visited that he put on his sparkling jacket and did his act for me. He is the only geriatric fire eating dwarf I’ve ever met, and this photo appeared on TG in February 2008.
The Mississippi Delta bears the distinction of being the cradle of the Blues and one of the poorest areas in our nation. In the town of Greenville I found Mama Bessie, thriving in her 90’s. She refused to let me leave her home without eating a freshly baked sweet potato. Her image was published on TG in August, 2009.
Kim Chan was a Hollywood actor who played a variety of evildoers. I photographed him in his 90’s and he came to my first photography show at the National Arts Club, where this cover photo was taken. The last time I visited him he said to me, “Your art is immortal,” which perhaps is an overstatement. His image appeared on TG in October 2009.
I met Bob and Esther at the Israel Levin Senior Center in Venice Beach, and they became my adopted family. In this photo they were both in their 90s and celebrating 70 years of marriage. When I asked Bob about the secret to their marriage he said, “I sing her a love song at night, and then I sing her a love song in the morning.” This image appeared on the cover of TG in June, 2010.
At 14,000 feet on Taquille Island in the middle of Lake Titicaca I had a case of altitide sickness with dizziness, splitting headaches, and shortness of breath. As I struggled to walk, elderly ladies carrying heavy loads were scampering around me and hopping over large rocks. This image from that trip was published on TG in June, 2011. The curious little girl in the background appears as an apparition of the woman’s younger self, and makes this one of my favorite covers.
When I was asked by TG editors to provide a cover for the special issue on successful aging, I called Tao Porchon, a 90+ year old dancer and Yoga instructor. When I asked if I could photograph her, she said, “Let me check my schedule.” Three months later I met her in a dance studio in Westchester, NY. This photo appeared on TG in February, 2015.
I met this magical looking elder in the remote mountains of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia where he was tending a flock of sheep. He was wearing a tall white felt hat and a long, embroidered coat called a chepken. At a certain point in our discussion he paused and looked at me intently and said, “I am going to give you a blessing.” After the blessing I felt a sense of humility, and all I could do was shake his hand and thank him. This image captures that moment, and appeared on TG in August, 2015.
In the poverty stricken state of Bihar in eastern India this weathered and barefoot man was on his way to the pilgrimmage site of Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha received enlightenment. This region, with its vast rice paddies, was endemic for malaria and the mosquitoes were the biggest I’ve ever seen. This image appeared on the cover of TG in October, 2015.
I’m closing this post with a photo I didn’t take, but wish I did. The title is “Along the Great Wall” and the photographer was James T. Sykes, a gerontologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin. On the cover of TG April 2001, it portrays a delightful interaction between a young woman and a bearded elder that makes it one of TG’s best covers ever. Like I said, wish I took this one.
Unknown to thousands of scholars that have viewed this body of work, this is a personal diary that unfolded over two decades, and reflects the changing technology of imaging as well as the evolving face of aging. I started back when you actually needed film, a heavy camera, and a darkroom to get publishable pictures. Now all you need is an internet connection and a device that fits in your pocket. Today the face of aging is changing as globalism and the internet are eliminating traditional culture and dress which I’ve tried to capture in my travels.
This project provided me with a creative outlet that overlapped nicely with my profession as a geriatrician, and helped keep me sane in the face of a busy career and a rapidly changing medical landscape. The cover project also branched into several gallery exhibits which was a great experience. Aging is not the most popular subject for people to look at, and certainly was not a source of income – but it enriched me through travel and learning about life from some very interesting people.