Friday, March 13, 2015
Searching for Successful Aging
by: Jeffrey M. Levine MD, AGSF (firstname.lastname@example.org), www.jmlevinemd.com
Successful aging is hard to define. The concept took root in 1987 when Rowe and Kahn published an article distinguishing “successful aging” from “usual aging.” Since then, scholars have been grappling for a definition but with little consensus. As discussed in a recent special issue of The Gerontologist (V 55 #1, February 2015) there are numerous directions from which the successful aging concept can be approached (see also this previous GeriPal post).
As a geriatrician who spent much of my career in nursing homes with the sickest sick I grapple with the concept of successful aging. Early on I noticed that two persons of the same advanced age can have vastly different states of health, functional status, family structure, economic status, and social standing. Lifestyle, personal choices, attitude, and coping mechanisms often had an influence on how people lived in their advanced years.
The Gerontologist is the flagship journal of the Gerontological Society of America, and I have been exploring successful aging through visual expression on its covers. The first cover I published was in 1996, not long after completing my geriatric fellowship. It featured my teacher, Dr. Manuel Rodstein, who was well into his 80’s and Director of Research at the Jewish Home, affiliated with Mount Sinai Medical Center. A gentle scholar and towering intellect, he published hundreds of papers on geriatric cardiology and taught me Latin phrases that he learned in medical school.
Back then to do photography you needed heavy equipment and a darkroom full of chemicals – a far cry from the pocket devices that proliferate today. My first Manhattan apartment was a small brownstone walk-up that I converted into a studio and darkroom which had barely enough space to sleep. As photographic technology evolved and my career progressed I continued to explore successful aging on the cover of The Gerontologist and my images have appeared on over 50 covers. Each one has its own story.
When the editors of The Gerontologist asked me to provide a cover for their special issue on Successful Aging I knew who I would photograph. I contacted Tao Porchon-Lynch who, in her 90’s, is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest living Yoga instructor. She is also a dancer, and I met her at the Fred Astaire dance studio in Westchester with her 26 year old dance partner, Vard Margaryan. I spent an hour photographing her as she glided across the floor, and her personality was as sparkling as her dress.
As a geriatrician I am constantly aware of the common human destiny of growing old and the need for a view of aging that inspires and teaches. I use my images to demonstrate how human beings can thrive as they journey into old age while probing their spirituality and showing diversity and strength. My goal is to open a door to the fullness of the life experience and come into closer creative contact with my own aging. Hopefully I too will be successful.
Watch a video that features Dr. Levine’s Gerontologist cover photos through 2011 (YouTube link here)
Dr. Levine’s photographic exhibit entitled An International Celebration of Aging will be on Exhibit at the University of Michigan as part of their Gifts of Art program from June 15th to August 23rd. Dr. Levine’s blog is at www.jmlevinemd.com. Follow Dr. Levine’s art on Instagram @jlevinemd.