Old People II: What is old?
People love lists, and this post has a dandy. Back in 2000, I proposed and oversaw a special project that was unusual for a newspaper, even back in those fat and happy days. It was an 8-page special section that was simply called “Old People.” Any editor who pitched such a use of resources in today’s financially strapped newspaper environment would immediately be fired.
But the point of our project was to explore the way that ordinary folks and even people who led the most remarkable lives become invisible in mainstream society as they age. Society lumps them all into one big box, slaps a label called “Old People” on it, and then we just go about our daily business.
To cast this phenomenon in the starkest relief we could, two of the Orlando Sentinel’s most talented staffers — Reporter Jeff Kunerth and Photographer Gary Bogdon — spent months scouring the state of Florida to find the most interesting old people they could who were still living among us, yet living in relative anonymity. They found people like this: Legendary NFL quarterback Otto Graham quietly living out his years in a Sarasota golf community; Olympic swimmer Eleanor Holm living alone in a 13th-floor Miami condo; And lots of others in similar circumstances: Baseball Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, NBA giant Bob Kurland, Golf Champ Marie St. Pierre; Former congresswoman and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm; former General Motors Corp CEO and Time magazine cover boy James Roche. And on and on. All of them were interested in talking to us about our theme. And Jeff and Gary documented their lives and talked to them about how it felt to get old. They came back with some remarkable stories and images that gave us the meat and potatoes for the project.
I asked Jeff and Gary to do something else, something very tedious and labor-intensive that I know must have sustained their hatred of editors for life. I asked them to go out and find an ordinary person of every age from 21 to 100, take a high-quality portrait of them and ask each one of them the same, simple question: “What is old?” And then we compiled a list of their answers to that question and ran the portraits and quotes along the bottom border of each page in the section, 10 photos per page. To accomplish this, Jeff and Gary went together to parking lots, fitness centers, retirement homes and stood in summer heat and rain, accosting people at random to fill all 80 slots in the list of ages we needed. But Jeff and Gary did it, and what they ended up getting was pretty cool. It was a secondary element of the project, but it added a lot of texture. You can find differing perspectives on aging as people move forward on the continuum of life, you can see what people your own age were saying nine years ago and wonder what you might have said yourself nine years ago as well as today. You can also find old souls amongst the youngsters and vice versa. You can get a taste of how it looked from the photos I included above. Click here for the complete list of answers, by ascending order of age: What Is Old?