Elders have reached a richness of experience and overcome the handicaps of youth

Elders have reached a richness of experience and overcome the handicaps of youth, but because of society's fear of aging and death — and its glorification of youth and beauty — elders are often stereotyped as unattractive, useless, sexless, losing mental powers and hard of hearing, say two Ashland musicians who aim to change those perceptions.

Songwriter Gaea Yudron, 69, and composer Laura Rich, 55, will stage a humorous series of songs and narrative called "A New Wrinkle: A Celebration of Aging" at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 23, at Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way.

The evening will feature opera singer Pauline Sullivan, author and coach Dr. Rick Kirschner and improv comedy by Carolyn Myers of The Hamazons, among other guests.

"It's to educate people about aging and debunk ageist myths and stereotypes, illuminating the true opportunities of later life that come from the accumulated values of their life experience," says Yudron.

Rich observes, "Our society greatly values youth and beauty, but if you haven't spent your life watching 'Gilligan's Island,' the reality is that older people have so much more accumulated knowledge, are emotionally calmer, mellowed, introspective and can use these skills in productive ways."

The concept of ageism, says Yudron, was formed in 1968 by Robert Neil Butler to point out discrimination and stereotypes against the elderly, children and adolescents, suggesting they should behave in certain ways because of limitations presumably based on their age.

Ageism is institutionally imbedded in hiring, promotion and pay, but is also subtle, with elders treated "disdainfully, as less than human, not quite up to snuff," says Yudron. "A lot of people are so unconscious about their ageist attitudes."

As an example, Rich points out how her mother, "who is very beautiful and strong, who hikes and swims, but when we're together, people speak loudly and slowly to her and talk to her like she's very cute. She hates it."

In the field of medicine, we see ageism in the fact that "some of the most important (drug) testing is not done on older adults and very few medical schools teach gerontology," says Yudron.

"The attitude is let's ignore it, we don't want it. ... We have a fear of aging. Old is a dirty word," she says.

This perception is internalized by elders as low self-worth that causes them to lose motivation, Yudron says.

"Our societal norms," says Rich, "look at 25 to 40 as the productive, normal adult and if you're outside that age bracket, you don't matter any more ... you're different."

Adds Yudron, "People are so blindsided by this cultural belief, that old age is about decline, instead of focusing on what works, what's beautiful and creative about it."

The pair point out high achievers of later life, such as Bertrand Russell, Einstein, Jimmy Carter and Maya Angelou, are "people who took decades to develop their life's work till it was in full fruition."

While midlife is seen as a time of high achievement, but also of identity issues and midlife crisis, old age "comes with a sense that you can pull out the stops, because you're motivated by the realization of how much time you have left and what you're going to do with it," Yudron says.

"There's an urgency and passion about it. ... It's a powerful stage of life."

The show's humor-laced songs include "Sex After 60," debunking the idea that elders are sexless, "Baba Yaga's Raga" about our mania to "pass for young" (as gays used to try to pass for straight, Yudron says) and "Hip-Hop Elder's Rant," where a senior cuts loose with rage at the way society marginalizes him.

Not all songs seek to tear down ageism. "Are You Gonna Take It With You to the Grave?" offers hope and personal growth through letting go of lifelong blame and grudges.

"It's a powerful stage of life and there's a lot of personal growth here," says Yudron. "It offers a lot of freedom. You can choose to step out of the boxes you've been living in so long and take risks, even if they're not outward risks. A lot is happening inside. Elders have a lot of ability to command authority and effect positive change."

Tickets to "A New Wrinkle: A Celebration of Aging" are $10 at Soundpeace and at the door. For information, call 541-488-6223, email gaea.yudron@yahoo.com or visit www.sagesplay.com. Yudron's blog on aging is http://sagesplay.blogspot.com/.

Yudron will present a free talk, "Let's Re-Imagine Aging," at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at Ashland library.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.