In honor of National Aging Month seven distinguished Penn faculty in the humanities, social sciences, medicine, and nursing explored how aging informs many more aspects of our lives than we may realize.
Aging, Medicine, and Hospitals
Stanley I. Sheerr Endowed Term Professor Emeritus
History & Sociology of Science
Rosemary Stevens examined the health care system of the United States and began with the provocative statement that, "Countries have the health care they deserve." Looking at medicine in the United States, Stevens sees an extremely wealthy and expansive system that focuses on the battle against death and dying, rather than the need to produce a population with better health. This culture of medicine has arisen in part out of the hospital system of the United States. These hospitals have not been designed as part of a health care system, but as elaborate public monuments to the battle against disease and dying that provide very good, but class and race differentiated, care.
Examine the history of the nation's first hospital, Pennsylvania Hospital.
Literary Creativity in Old Age
Donald T. Regan Professor of English
Susan Stewart examined the writings of Thomas Hardy and Penelope Fitzgerald. Hardy began as a poet but turned to novels to make a living. Approaching the end of his life, he returned to his poetry and produced "Winter Words in Various Moods and Meters" until his death. As the title of the volume implies, in his last years Hardy was able to express new creativity through the freedom of experimentation with new forms of verse.
While Hardy was a prolific author from his youth, Penelope Fitzgerald was a comparative late bloomer. She began writing novels at the age of 60 in 1977, beginning with "Offshore." Her last novel, "The Blue Flower," was published when she was 80 and won the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award Winner in Fiction.
New Treatments in Alzheimer's Disease
Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
Codirector Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases
School of Medicine
Emphasizing that Alzheimer's disease is a pathology and not normal aging in any sense, John Trojanowski looked at the trends in the rates of Alzheimer's in the population of the United States and also examined the promise of medical treatment to combat the disease. At present, approximately 40 - 45% of people over 85 years of age have symptoms of Alzheimer's, and 4 million people ranging in age from their 30s upwards have been diagnosed. With America's aging population, this demographic is expected to swell to 14 million Alzheimer's patients by the year 2060. This is clearly a medical problem of import to the well being of the country as a whole. Trojanowski's work with his wife Virginia Lee and their colleagues at Penn and other institutions is beginning to show promise, and the hope is to begin to find medical options that delay the onset of AD, greatly improving the quality of life of all Americans.
Late Style in Painting
Associate Professor and Graduate Chair
History of Art
Much as Susan Stewart examined the late lives of authors, Christine Poggi explored how several famous painters dealt with aging not as decline but as a period of changing styles and new creativity. Faced with failing health, Henri Matisse used those physical resources available to him and entered one of his most explosively creative periods, producing his famed cut-outs. Rembrandt explored aging through his self-portraits, confronting and embracing not merely his aging appearence but portraying himself as an "Old Master." His age became a badge of honor, in a sense, reflecting his status as an artistic presence immortalized by his work. Like Rembrandt, American artist Alice Neel painted until her death in 1984, exploring through her nude self-portrait and portraits of others the realities of the aging body. For Neel aging was not decline, but metamorphosis and yet another tool for creativity--and a subject to be embraced as any other.
More on Rembrandt, from the The Rembrandt Museum and the Webmuseum in Paris. On Henri Matisse, from the Webmuseum in Paris and from the ArtCyclopedia. And the Alice Neel page, including an on-line gallery, and from the ArtCyclopedia.
Late Style in Composition
Professor of Music
With literature and painting examined by his colleagues on the panel, Jeffrey Kallberg looked at changes in the art of composers as they aged. Kallberg focused on three artists in particular: Franz Josef "Papa" Haydn, Giuseppe Verdi, and Elliot Carter. Haydn began to explore new musical outlets in the form of the oratorio at the 65. Verdi continued with the opera, but returned to the comic opera when he was 80 years of age, a format he had not engaged with since the beginning of his career. Finally, Kallberg looked at the work of Elliot Carter, very much alive and active at age 93, and one of the most creative American composers of the 20th (and 21st) century.
Time and the Experience of Aging
Edith Clemmer Steinbright Professor in Gerontology
School of Nursing
Neville Strumpf has spent her career understanding how the perception of time changes with age, and how these perceptions change the health care needs of the elderly. As she has noted with her informants, the future is important, thinking young is critical, there is a need to stay in tune with the present, and the past is seen as an ideal time. The most important critique that Strumpf has offered of medical care is the damage that restraining patients may do to the physical and mental health of the elderly. Restraint destroys time, creates a sense of timelessness and helplessness that has a tremendously adverse effect on patients. Strumpf concluded with an important reminder that for all of us, regardless of age, time is the most precious gift we can give to one another, and when all else has failed us, it is all we have left.