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What Are Old People For?
How Elders Will Save the World
by William H. Thomas, M.D.

From Part One

Beautiful Wrinkles

What would it be like to live in a society that adored wrinkles? The idea may seem laughable at first, but for millennia, living to a ripe old age was an exceptional achievement and was often recognized as such by society. Confucian societies, among many others, have long held that the aged should be treated with special respect.

What if the war on wrinkles were replaced by a crazy new wave of wrinkle-promoting ingenuity? Any desire to intentionally age one’s face seems bizarre to those reared in a youth-dominated culture. It upsets unspoken assumptions about aging. However, imagine, if just for a moment, that we lived in a world that embraced the arrival of a face with character. Millions would grumble, “If they can put a man on the moon, is it too much to ask for faster, better wrinkles that are both safe and beautiful?” Such a society would swoon over wrinkled artists, actors, and models. Songs and poems would celebrate the arrival of a face with character (even if its arrival was hurried along). Spas and retreats would promise, “You’ll look ten years older in just two weeks.” It really would be a different world.

Let’s look again at the advertisement that opened this chapter. Maybe someday I will unfold my newspaper and read the following words as I eat my breakfast:

Reader Looks Older…Now Dating Again!
Dear Patty: You’ve changed my life. I was a “Baby Boomer,” obsessed with youth and divorced from my own aging self. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was flat, featureless skin. I just felt terrible. Then I read your column about that pharmacist’s miracle discovery…CF-6 Facial Cream. Well, I bought a jar and amazing things began to happen. That cream changed my life! I do look older. I’m growing into a wonderful face: wrinkles, crow’s feet, smile lines…I have it all! I feel great…and I’m growing as a person again, thanks to you!

Ridiculous? Why should it be? Far more ridiculous is a society that panics people into painful injections and disfiguring surgery as a result of the benign lines that appear on their faces. Wrinkles themselves do us no harm. The suffering they bring, the suffering that drives people into the arms of the cosmetics and medical industries, is the product of an overt bigotry toward old age and aging. The pain wrinkles inflict is entirely of our own making.

All the self-induced anguish might serve some purpose if it prodded us toward a reexamination of our longevity. Wrinkles give us a way to begin such a conversation, but it is just a start. Gray hair and facial lines are only the first signs of something much more menacing. Finding a new wrinkle on wrinkles is one thing; plumbing the true nature of our longevity presents a much more exciting and demanding challenge.

All excerpts from What Are Old People For?,
Copyright 2004 by William H. Thomas, M.D.

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