African American writer and thinker Ralph Ellison was describing his race-based invisibility. Those who are themselves invisible recognize the truth and relevance of Ellison’s words. “I am an invisible man. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Bella Pollen, writing in Midnight Cactus, takes a different tack on the concept of invisibility, observing that “if America is the land of opportunity a country where perseverance and hard work is rewarded by recognition, then an illegal harbors the opposite ambitions. His great reward is anonymity, invisibility. Aided and abetted by market forces and the laws of supply and demand, he hones the skill to stand up but make sure he’s never counted.”
Contrasting, but compatible observations that give pause. Though Ellison and Pollen reflect on the invisibility of people of color and immigrants, those affected by the invisibility brought on by age can learn. My instinct as a short and congenitally unprepossessing person is to weigh the safety in anonymity against the inherent challenge of invisibility. I would simply add to the mix the parallel pros and cons of inaudibility. As I daily confront the challenge of acute invisibility brought on by the passage of time on earth I am determined to focus on the advantages and find humor in the insults.
Nancy Perry Graham, editor in chief of AARP The Magazine, laments that “older people are invisible in society after a certain point…. It’s one of the last remaining acceptable prejudices.” Obviously, I abhor the pain that this socially acceptable prejudice inflicts on elderly people. Still, I believe the greater loss lies in the fact that mainstream society starves itself of the time, wisdom and experience of the elderly.
So it is with concern for wisdom lost, wry pleasure and an incurable stubborn streak that I don the cloak of invisibility
Most times I laugh inwardly and wonder within my invisible self just when it was that my own metamorphosis into invisibility transpired. As a vertically challenged woman, I eased into the final phase. The total transformation may have come with retirement. Retirement means instant non-personhood, loss of professional credentials and skills and the invalidation of real world wisdom. Though volunteers do get self-satisfaction our impact lacks legitimacy.
Then there is the Digital Divide. Admittedly, I am a lurker. Though I have legit access to the basic tools, I have neither the time nor the interest in the latest tweet from someone dashing off to the spa or stuck in traffic. I spend countless hours doing research online, but choose to remain invisible and uninterrupted by yet another beep. I actually think of meal time as a chance to dine (using my hands) and to chat with fascinating friends who are replete with ideas and stories. Staring at and thumbing an inanimate device seems far less intellectually stimulating.
Invisibility is a daily fact in the world of commerce, of course. I don’t shop much, but when I do I am amused by the inevitable intergenerational encounter. The cheerleader clerk invariably looks furtively around the dressing room to see who is going to signal learn what this old lady thinks of the garment draped on her invisible frame. The plus side of shopping is the disinclination to buy, buoyed by the dismissive attitude of the salesperson.
There are trendy magazines with massive advertising campaigns devoted to visible people; serious publishers must assume invisibles are illiterate, irrelevant and/or just not active players in the economy. The scourge of digital marketing is universally fixated on young consumers. If virtual marketers don’t want to pitch to invisibles, we should be able to block those fatuous streams of commercialism; we could use the time we have left to learn something meaningful.
For invisibles television is a major source of offense/humor. As portrayed on TV programs and/or commercials seniors are sadly visible – as frail and bumbling incompetents. (“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” comes to mind.) Sad to say, the “news” media are worse, consistently referring to the elderly in the third person and the mainstream as “we” (as in “we” the sandwich generation will some day have to bear the burden of “them,” our parents.}
The only industry that unabashedly caters to the invisible elderly is the prescription/OTC drug cabal that assumes we are insomniacs who are simply unaware that modern medicine has identified new maladies for which they alone have a pricey panacea. Their preference for nocturnal commercials rests in part on the fact that advertising rates are cheaper than prime time; further, should we invisible old folks happen to wake in the night, we are vulnerable to the pitch.
The medical profession as a whole is tangentially aware of our presence – could it be the Medicare payments? Though they poke and probe the physical form, their interest ends there. The assumption, one must conclude, is that corporal irregularities are generally linked to age and that invisible oldsters are incapable of accepting the cause or the cure.
Of course invisible elderly usually just suck it up. Professionals who study such matters attribute this to upbringing – we’re too polite to Question Authority. I disagree. For me, it’s not worth the time or the energy to intervene – especially since the service provider, regardless of role, can neither hear nor see the complainant. Consider the source, and savor yet another inappropriate encounter.
Back in the day, folks didn’t live to the age of invisibility. They left their accumulated wealth to feed their progeny and the economy. Those who lasted earned kudos for their wisdom and longevity. Ancients were actually seen and heard, even honored. One challenge today is to reposition the elderly as vital human beings who could be a resource with a contribution to make in a world that hungers for wisdom. Still, we must first be visible.
Victor Hugo wrote: “A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor.” Truth to tell, though invisible in the labor force, the media and the economy, many invisible seniors are hard at work thinking.