Last week an elderly relative of mine confided in a small group of friends that her son doesn’t seem to understand that she can no longer do things she could do even ten years ago. A mutual friend of ours chimed in with what I realized is a quite reasonable explanation. “Logically he knows that you’re 90, but in his mind he sees you as about 45. I couldn’t understand why my mom couldn’t just go out and dig her own garden anymore. I saw her as middle aged, right up until she very visibly was suffering from dementia at age 80.”
I came home and got out some old photo albums. My great grandmother wore a flowered print dress, thick stockings, orthopedic shoes and a bonnet and apron. In contrast, the woman who had made the complaint about her son had been wearing a lovely pair of tailored slacks with a tailored shirt and a structured jacket. She carried a buttery soft leather bag and wore beautiful ballet flats. Next I looked at photos from my parent’s wedding. Both of my grandmothers looked lovely. As a side note, neither ever learned to drive a car. The year was 1951, and they were true to the amazing style of that time. But they looked their age. I compared it to photos from my son’s wedding, and noted the difference between my grandmothers and us moms in the newer photo. My grandmas were wearing sensible shoes, while I was wearing stiletto evening sandals. In the newer photos the mother of the bride is out on the dance floor showing the kids a thing or two. I was also struck by the comparison between my mother and grandmother. Photos of my grandmother show an exceptionally pretty woman who was chubby and rosy cheeked; the quintessential Grandma. I vividly remember the first time we saw her wearing slacks instead of her usual dress. It was in the early 1970s and she decided she was going to jump on the new pantsuit trend. That in contrast to my mother, who at 77 years old had this past winter took to tucking her jeans into her knee high leather boots.
While I would never suggest that all those 60+-year-old fashionistas should revert to the days of housedresses and sensible shoes, I can see where there is some confusion. Our style really does reflect who we are as a person, at least to some degree. When we see 65-year-old Helen Mirren looking spectacular in a red bikini, we see her as being not only confident, but also almost ridiculously physically fit. I don’t think that we would be concerned that she needs help with carrying her laundry upstairs. While all of the advances in skin care and cosmetics, and yes, Botox and Restylane, have erased the signs of age, the fact is they have not literally erased the years. Yes, we have medical advances that have enabled us to live longer and healthier lives, and that is great. But we have also blurred the line of perception so that when a 90 year old woman who looks decades younger than her chronological age asks for help, the response may not be as fast as she had hoped.