Nadine Zylberberg | Growing Pains


Twenty Something | If we keep seeing the elderly as burdens, we’ll only hurt ourselves


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Nadine Zylberberg
twentysomething

Photo by Nadine Zylberberg


One day, you will grow old. Wrinkles will sneak up on you, your gait will slow and your musical tastes will undoubtedly become dated. Then, barring a major scientific breakthrough, you will die.

We’re all a testament to aging, but only to an extent. Yes, I’ll get old. But what does that have to do with me?

Michael Haneke’s film “Amour” takes on the familiarly distant concept of old age and makes it at once both more familiar and more distant.

In his brutally honest portrayal of Anne and Georges, an aging Parisian married couple, Haneke accesses a definition of mundane we do not yet know. He basks in every glacial stride and interminable silence characteristic of old age with an unusually patient camera.

In a New Yorker blog post, writer Teju Cole lauds Haneke’s unsympathetic portrayal. He cites Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote, “When we look at the image of our own future provided by the old we do not believe it: an absurd inner voice whispers that that will never happen to us — when that happens it will no longer be ourselves that it happens to.”

When it comes to movies, I’m a weeper. But maybe de Beauvoir’s reasoning is why, this time around, I left the theater dry-eyed.

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It was a few days until my tear ducts gave way and I came to an unsettling realization. Throughout the film, Anne and Georges are alone. Firefighters, neighbors and nurses come and go. They bring groceries, offer condolences, change diapers. Even the couple’s daughter, Eva, stands at a distance, troubling them with her marital woes and real estate sagas.

Historically, the value America has placed on the elderly is abysmal. We commit 1.2 million over the age of 65 to nursing homes and countless studies have reported instances of abuse. Dealing with our elders has become just another chore.

As functioning members of society, we understand that productivity is key. Members of the older generation are no longer quantitatively valuable, becoming dependent on our tax dollars and a strain on the capitalist system. Further, twenty-somethings will only pay more as baby boomers seek retirement and we become the nation’s primary taxpayers.

This sentiment hasn’t been as popular elsewhere, most notably Japan, whose 65-and-older citizenry makes up a quarter of the population. The nation observes Respect for the Aged Day, youth bow to their elders and grandparents remain heads of households until their final days.

But even Japan has seen a terrifying change in outlook. Just last week, the nation’s 72-year-old finance minister, Taro Aso, claimed the elderly population had become an unwanted burden. His advice? That the aged community “hurry up and die.”

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Respect for the elderly was a cultural linchpin at one point, but has since turned into a generational strain. In a world of individualism, we tend to place higher value on personal success than on communal solidarity.

American author Alex Haley once said, “When an old person dies, it’s like a library burning,” giving tremendous and warranted weight to experience — a word that, these days, is the ultimate resume-builder exploited by, ironically, a rather inexperienced youth.

The day will come when we’ll no longer turn to the true bearers of experience. All memories of the Holocaust or Pearl Harbor will be embedded in glossy textbooks or annual History Channel specials. First-hand accounts, with their every hand gesture and vocal quiver, will disappear.

This past year has introduced a series of senior-centric films, among them The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet. But even these don’t achieve what Amour so poignantly does.

As the ninth foreign-language film to ever be nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards, it speaks volumes about what we’ve been getting wrong. Maybe it’s a collective disregard for the isolating wait elders experience before returning to nothing and the frustrating fact that it’s impossible for us to commiserate.

But whatever it does, it forces us to confront what we’re increasingly ignoring. And I promise, if you contemplate what it is to be old — its beauties, its perils, its simplicity and its utter complexity — for a moment longer, it’ll bring you to tears.

Nadine Zylberberg is a College senior from Boca Raton, Fla. Her email address is nadinezylber@gmail.com. Follow her @nadine_zyl. “twentysomething” appears every other Thursday.

Illustrations by Michele Ozer

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