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Sonoma County Gazette
Savory Sonoma by Stephanie Hiller

To Me You Are Beautiful



Aug 30, 2018
by Stephanie Hiller


There were no old people in the Springs Community Hall the night Ken Brown, former longtime mayor, put on a Middle Eastern fusion event called “Jews, Blues and Sufis”, just a bunch of grey-heads and greybeards frolicking on the dance floor in joyful gyrations. It was a pleasure to see them, I was too weary to join but watching from the sidelines, people I’ve seen in various progressive political circles now cavorting as if they were kids.

Ben Boyce, perhaps our most serious political commentator, was transported with glee while dancing with his wife, his long arms stretched out to each side like a pair of wings. And then there was Carol Vernal, herself a veteran host of numerous musical events called “Himalaya”, which she produced to raise money for the health clinic she created and supports in Nepal; Himalaya featured the same lead singer we were hearing this night, Sukhawat Ali Khan, who swept onto the floor to invite her to dance.

I’m sorry to say there wasn’t much Jewish music in the mix—I love Kletzmer music—except “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (“By me, you are beautiful”) an old Yiddish melody from the borscht circuit, made famous by the Andrews Sisters. But since it was Sabbath eve, the Sabbath candles were lit, with a prayer by Rabbi Steve Finley and his wife Jaffa of Nir Shalom; and for a few moments the sacred Shekhina filled the room.

Aging, now so extended, is divided into three phases: the young old from 65 to 74; 75 to 84, just plain old; and 85 on up, the very old or god forbid (I don’t like this word) the elderly.

Speaking of words…Since our local demographic is more than the national average of 25 percent older adults, we might well begin to talk about aging, although, like pot, it’s still a little hush-hush around here, another topic and quite a perplexing one to this recent returnee to the county where pot (now we call it cannabis, you know, it sounds more medicinal) was, well, was considered, back in the day a ticket to enlightenment…but that, dot-dot-dot, is for another day.

The August 9 issue of The Sonoma Sun launched an incisive editorial on that closeted topic (if we don’t talk about it, maybe it will go away…like climate change?), describing quite accurately the plight a good many of us find ourselves in—“those on fixed incomes are on a terrible fix” —and noting that “America is not designed for the elderly. From pedestrian safety to simple shelter from the elements at a bus stop, even our local Sonoma Valley infrastructure seems as if it were designed for the convenience of machines, not people—and most certainly not the elderly” (there’s that word again). We like to think “you’re only as old as you feel,” but when you don’t have enough money, you’re older.

If words can change reality, there’s something now in vogue in the realm of social change and that is the notion of changing the story, or using language to reframe the issue. Social change advocates often find that certain words cause listeners to flare instead of respond. “Affordable housing” for example seems to summon images of the indigent and slovenly poor, evoking a NIMBY response instead of the enthusiastic support for public programs the speaker was hoping for.

With respect to aging, the American Society on Aging, and AARP, teamed up with some other organizations, secured a bunch of funding, and hired a company called Frameworks to help reframe aging. They discovered that most Americans, including old people, don’t like old people. That age is associated with decline and deterioration (well, duh) which the public perceives as being like children, dependent, needy, but unlike children, a little pathetic. This image supports ageism and interferes with the way older people are treated.

This study produced a lot of interesting materials that you can find online if you wish at all clumped under the broad category of “Gaining Momentum”, re-framing aging as a time of culmination of life experience instead of decline.

When I introduced “gaining momentum” to my women’s group at Brookdale, everyone laughed, someone made a comment about canes and walkers, and well, the wisdom of life experience however you frame it may be “tell me no lies.”

But, as the Sun’s editorial notes, “in sheer numbers” we old folks are powerful, and we vote.So while we are changing aging, let’s change the world.

Isn’t that what we set out to do, many long years ago?


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