Stanley Kunitz was 69 years old when he was appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, in 1974. He was chosen Poet Laureate of the United States 26 years later, in 2000, at the age of 95. His last book of poetry, “The Wild Braid,” was published in 2005, when Kunitz was 99 years old. The poet died in 2006.
The story of a senior actively engaged in the arts is not as extraordinary as our culture might have us believe.
Anna Mary “Grandma Moses” Robertson began painting in her late 70s. Frank Lloyd Wright finished designing the Guggenheim Museum when he was 91. Michelangelo assumed the role of architect of St. Peter’s Basilica when he was 72. Cuban-born minimalist Carmen Herrera had her first major sale of a painting at age 89. Her works now hang in the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, and the Tate. At an age when society regards too many elders as invisible, Herrera became something of a phenom in the art world. As a New York Times art critic asked, “How can we have missed these beautiful compositions?”
The answer is simple: Our youth-oriented culture rewards youthful talent while largely ignoring or dismissing the talent of its elders. This practice, while not unique in its modern Western form, is paradoxical. Shamans, prophets, seers — the men and women a society turns to for vision and wisdom — historically, have been its elders.
The fetish of youth is a relatively new phenomenon, although its roots run into the deep past, impressed by movements and moments from 19th-century Romanticism, with its adoration of childish wisdom, to modern hippiedom, with its disdain for and suspicion of anyone over age 30.
The marginalization of older people is not solely the product of pop culture. Science shares responsibility.
Once upon a time, science told us that senility was the result of a dying brain, of brain cells that are never replaced, unlike most other somatic cells. Most of us — even most of us who are old — probably still believe this myth as we go about our day anxiously searching for misplaced keys, forgetting names of familiar faces and missing appointments. Even if it has been our habit for decades to have these lapses, now that we are old, we are inclined to regard them as evidence of dotage and dementia and gray matter flaking off like dandruff.
Stereotypes — even and especially scientific stereotypes — die hard. Once a scientific fact becomes a cultural truism, it is not easily dismissed, particularly if it has credible authorship. Sigmund Freud, whose indelible influence upon our culture has been important in our understanding and articulation of the mind, maintained that students over 50 could learn absolutely nothing. He was 51 when he made this pronouncement. Ironically, “Oedipus Rex” — the play from which Freud drew most of his important symbolism — was written by Greek tragedian Sophocles at age 71.
That pathology is a part of aging, however, is not a myth. Stroke and Alzheimer’s, diseases that can impair cognition and limit artistic endeavor, attack the elderly more often than the young. Yet each life has age-specific physical dangers; e.g., type 1 diabetes in children, and muscular dystrophy in young adults. It’s also true that the brain eventually does lose about 10 percent of its weight as a result of atrophy.
However, nature has provided us with a vast reserve of neurons that render this loss negligible in an otherwise healthy brain. Furthermore, recent research debunks the established scientific belief that the brain’s neurons are produced only in the first two years of life. Evidence now suggests that the human brain actually continues to produce these cells through most of its life span — into the fifth, sixth, and seventh decades of the average human’s life.
Probably more important than neuron production is the production of dendrites, the branches between neurons which carry electrical impulses from brain cell to brain cell. The brain has some 100 billion neurons capable of producing 100 trillion connections, or synapses.