Seven years ago, after working extensively abroad, I decided to turn my focus inward on America. My goal was to identify a theme that would define our times, one that captured the American ethos today and the inevitable future that lies ahead. If this were the Sixties, I probably would have documented the Civil Rights Movement. But today, one of the defining social changes taking place in America is the impact of longevity. In the past one hundred years, our life expectancy has increased by three decades and by mid-century old will outnumber young people for the first time in history. This phenomenon is reshaping our families, our attitudes, our work lives, and our institutions. I was determined to look at some of the unprecedented opportunities and the intensifying demands that are reshaping the American landscape as we age.
I chose to focus this project on America, even though these same dynamics exist in other industrialized countries, to keep the project intimate. Also, social developments in America often presage what the rest of the westernized world encounters. As it stands now-and part of the reason I embarked on this project-America is a society in collective denial of aging. We appreciate vintage in wine, not people; we "distress" furniture and clothing to make it look old, but pay thousands of dollars to erase the wrinkles that time bestows on our faces. When I set out to chronicle aging in America, I wasn't looking for people who defied aging by skydiving and rock climbing. While these "super seniors" are inspirational, they further the conviction that our august years should be spent trying to out-do youth. I focused instead on people who carry the flag of their years and reflect the changes necessary to accommodate advancing age.
I have dealt with issues ranging from elderly prisoners who must live out their last days behind bars, to the upsurge of elderly immigrants who follow their children to America. I documented the life of a poor grandmother in Spanish Harlem struggling to care for her 8-year-old grandson, and the inspiring phenomena of the Senior Olympics and the Senior Pro Rodeo. I have chronicled a unique program that places elders with foster families, and delved into a retirement community where Alzheimer's patients are involved in a child daycare facility.
I paid considerable attention to the overwhelming demands of caregiving, which is part of longevity's "dirty little secret." Longevity doesn't mean eternal youth. Quite the contrary, if we live long enough, our bodies will begin to disappoint and our independence will finally betray us. My goal was to look at the heightened demands of aging and to restore some dignity to the state of dependency that comes with old-old age. This series is my attempt to confront aging face-to-face, with an unflinching approach, to celebrate the gains of longevity and recognize the agony of loss. The images in this series are at times humorous, at times uncomfortable, but always compassionate. They paint a sober and dignified portrait of the range of experience our elders face. Ultimately, they pay homage to the life changes that take place as we age and they force us to reexamine the culture of aging.
Years Ahead : Aging in America, published by Powerhouse Books.