Birte Twisselmann: Let’s hear it for music and poetry

“Representation of older people in arts, music, and literature,” a seminar held at the Royal Society of Medicine, got off to a shaky start because of noisy building work next door. Eventually a new room was found and the afternoon got properly under way. Before the interruption, Estella Tincknell, associate professor for film and culture at Bristol’s University of the West of England, gave an overview on the problematic depiction of ageing in popular media and culture, which, she said, has changed fundamentally over the past 100 years (her term for today’s dominant paradigm was the “hegemony of youth”). Today, decline and loss are being portrayed as the defining conditions of ageing, and the only people who are seemingly “ageing successfully” in film and multimedia are white, heterosexual, and middle class.

Academic researcher Hannah Zeilig focused on the topic of dementia, which she examined as a “cultural metaphor” that currently dominates news reports, medical discussions, plays, films, memoirs, and poems, and has become synonymous with ageing, although it is clearly not the same thing. She examined stories told about “dementia” as a sociocultural construct and the language used to tell those stories.

Neuropsychologist Sean Haldane presented a poetic illustration of ageing (poetry written about old age, and poetry written by older people). Poetry, a non-visual medium, offers wide scope for individual expression—young people can write poetry about ageing, although this will not necessarily bear any resemblance to an older person’s experience of it or be “truthful” (the example used was Jenny Joseph’s poem “Warning—When I am An Old Woman I shall Wear Purple”). Older poets write about as wide a range of topics as poets of any other age, not just about getting old. And old age is a subject like any other in poetry—and it is not necessarily what clinicians want to think, the presenter said.

Des O’Neill, geriatrician and stroke physician at Trinity College Dublin, and a regular BMJ blogger explained how music written in later life can generate powerful metaphors to illuminate the complexities of later life and illustrated this with some beautiful examples (Leonard Cohen, Richard Strauss). Similar to late life creativity in poetry, music is not necessarily subject to a decline in quality because the composer is older, rather the opposite. O’Neill compared this with Paul Baltes’s theories about lifespan and wisdom (in 1980 Baltes, a German psychologist, outlined selective optimisation with compensation as a developmental process to describe the relation between age related changes within individuals and changes in behavioural and cognitive styles. I liked the idea that “we’re born copies and die originals”—although I cannot remember where this came from.

Peter Byrne, liaison psychiatrist in east London, talked about ageing and film—the lack of roles for older (especially female) actors, the lack of interesting older parts in film (these are often restricted to stereotypes or even caricature). He highlighted the parallels between the depiction of older people and that of people with mental health problems, and the way in which in some recent films the two seem almost synonymous, although dementia is not a normal part of ageing. Like several of his fellow speakers he used Michael Haneke’s 2012 film Amour as an example (although he did remind us that the film does not actually deal with dementia, but with someone who had had a stroke).

Physician John Quin concluded the afternoon by explaining the painter artist’s view of ageing, with some particularly poignantly chosen examples of older female artists and their self portraits. Very memorable were his insights into the Dutch American expressionist artist Willem de Kooning, whose earlier images may strike onlookers as explicit, harsh, and misogynist, but whose later images, when his faculties were blurred by years of alcoholism and onset of dementia, were rather more gentle, clean, and sparse. Quin concluded his talk with a reflection on one of Rembrandt’s late, enigmatic self-portraits.

An enjoyable afternoon, with many themes running through it (in addition to Amour, the other film that got several mentions was the latest James Bond film, Skyfall), which raised awareness for the many different ways in which how ageing people are depicted in the arts today—and reassured at least this attendee that not everything about ageing seems to be negative.

Birte Twisselmann is web editor and obituaries editor.