Does Everything Get Better with Age?
In this episode, we’re exploring what it means to get older, whether you’re a human or the planet Earth. We learn from a biologist who looks for ways to slow down aging at the cellular level and from a nutrition researcher who shares simple things we can do to stay healthy into our 80s and 90s. The lives of wild chimpanzees give us insights into why what’s important to us changes as we age. Then we go for a walk with a paleontologist, who may change your view of what longevity means. We meet a filmmaker who tackles agism through comedy and an artist who thinks that getting older doesn’t mean you can’t be sexy. We talk about things that are known to age well, like wine, and some, like old TV shows and movies, that often don’t. The most important takeaway from this episode? Don’t forget to call your grandparents.
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People You’ll Hear in This Episode
Zarin Machanda, the Usen Family Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology, is a director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, an organization that conserves chimpanzees living in Kibale National Park, Uganda. Her research looks at the development of social relationships among wild chimpanzees, particularly how age affects social bonds. She is also on the board of the Kasiisi Project, a nonprofit that supports the education and health of Ugandan children.
Mitch McVey, a professor in the Department of Biology, teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses on the biology of aging. His lab studies molecular processes of DNA repair, recombination, and damage tolerance and how this regulation changes during development and aging. Learn more about the work of the McVey Lab here.
Sarah Booth is director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, which investigates and promotes the role of nutrition and physical activity in healthy and active aging. Her lab is one of the foremost investigators of vitamin K, which is associated with various age-related concerns, including cognitive function and mobility.
Noel Heim, a lecturer in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, is a paleobiologist interested in the history of Earth’s marine biosphere. He looks for changes over 600 million years of geologic time, including ongoing effects caused by humans. Follow a self-guided geology hike of the Middlesex Fells Reservation here.
Grace Hafner, A13, has a master’s degree in vineyard and winery management and works as the winemaker for Domaine de la Solitude in Martillac, France. The winemaking tradition has passed down through three generations in her family, who run The Hafner Vineyard in California.
Kareem Khubchandani is a Mellon Bridge Assistant Professor of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. His research lies in feminism, queer culture, and Southeast Asian culture. Khubchandani’s performance work is primarily in drag and stages the exploration of critical race, postcolonial, and gender theory. He is the author of Ishtyle: Accenting Gay Indian Nightlife.
Filmmaker Jennifer Burton is a professor of the practice in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies. She and her siblings head the independent film company Five Sisters Productions, and recently worked with students in the Tufts community to produce the Half the History project, a series of short films on women in American history, and Old Guy, a comedic take on ageism in the media.
Multidisciplinary artist Samantha Nye, A10 (BFA), creates works that highlight aging bodies and celebrate queer kinship. Through the lenses of pop culture, camp, and stylized erotica, her exhibit Samantha Nye: My Heart’s in a Whirl expands the parameters of love, sex, agency, and belonging. The exhibit is part of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University’s 2021 Traveling Fellow exhibition program, presented in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Devin Russell, D25, and his grandfather, Edmund Russell Jr., D62, represent two of four generations of Russells to attend Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. The family practice in Portland, Maine, has been serving patients since 1964.
[People singing Happy Birthday]
Julie Flaherty: Do you ever wonder why we age as we get older?
Anna Miller: Yeah, like what actually happens as we age? Can we slow it down? Can we even defy it?
Flaherty: This is Tell Me More, the Tufts University podcast. I’m Julie Flaherty.
Miller: And I’m Anna Miller. And today, we’re going to talk all about what happens when things get older, from people to chimpanzees to fine wine.
Flaherty: We’ll talk to a paleontologist who studies the age of the earth, and artists and filmmakers who tackle ageism.
Miller: And we’ll find out why some things, such our favorite 90s TV shows, just don’t age well.
Miller: We’re starting this episode in a rather unexpected place—deep in the tropical rainforests of East Africa.
[ sounds of the jungle]
Miller: This is where Assistant Professor Zarin Machanda studies chimpanzees. She’s part of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, a world-renowned institution that's been observing and documenting wild chimp populations in Uganda or more than 30 years.
Zarin Machanda: Every time you go out with the chimps, you see something new, you see something interesting. It’s like the most complex never-ending soap opera you can possibly imagine. It's like Days of Our Lives on steroids. You know, they’re having sex with each other's mothers. Nobody knows who the fathers of the babies are. The relationships are complex. The behavior is complex. It's such a privilege to be able to see it and piece it together over decades, which is what you need to study this long-lived animal.
Miller: Chimp behavior varies a lot, and they’re not always the cute, cuddly creatures that we see on TV. Sometimes they can be pretty brutal.
Machanda: When people ask me about chimps, I never actually say that I love chimps because to love a chimp is complicated because they're really horrible to each other. So I always say, I love studying chimps because they're so fascinating. They can be incredibly aggressive. There’s usually some kind of aggression every single day. Humans are great: When we have a problem with one another, we have words to communicate with each other. Chimps don't have that kind of ability. And so, in many ways, the way they solve problems with each other is through physical violence.
But at the same time, they're also this incredibly cooperative species. They will hunt together and they'll groom each other and they'll spend hours kind of focused on building strong relationships with each other.
You’ll see adult males playing with babies and picking them up and tickling them. It’s incredibly complex.
They're smart animals that have long-term bonds with one another and relationships and histories that span decades.
Miller: There’s been a lot of studies on human aging, and since we’re closely related to chimpanzees, sharing about 99 percent of the same DNA, Machanda and her colleagues were curious to know if we would share any similarities in how we age.
Machanda: It struck us that a really important aspect of human aging is our social behavior. And there have been a lot of studies over the past decade or so, that shows how important strong bonds are in protecting against death. Right? So individuals who are more integrated into their social group as humans tend to actually survive longer.
Machanda: The data show that humans show this positivity bias. So as humans age we actually start to interpret situations with rose colored glasses on and in general, there's kind of a hesitancy with getting involved in conflict.
Miller: We also tend to have fewer friends, but have stronger relationships with the friends we do have.
Machanda: So social networks become smaller and more focused on really positive, strong relationships.
Miller: It’s been theorized that people gradually make these changes, because humans have a sense of time and the knowledge that all things, whether it’s a semester or a lifetime, come to an end.
Machanda: And that’s called socioemotional selectivity theory. The assumption there is that the shifts occur because humans have an understanding of time horizons and our sense of mortality.
Miller: So Machanda was curious if chimps would show similar behaviors, even without the sense of impending death on the horizon.
Machanda: And so we looked at our data and we tracked our male chimps through two decades of data. And a couple of interesting things stood out. One, they actually decreased their rates of aggression quite substantially, but didn’t really change their grooming. So overall their behavior became more positive towards these more positive-affiliated behaviors.
Miller: In other words, as male chimps get older, they become friendlier. There’s less fighting and more affection.
Machanda: But second, we noticed that we’re able to calculate metrics of friendship and kind of who are friends with whom, and we noticed that what happens as older males age, they shift away from these one-sided relationships where they’re always kind of giving, you know, like they’re the ones trying to initiate interactions, or, you know, they’re the ones who are, always like I’m going to go sit beside you and it’s never reciprocated. And so they shift away from those one-sided friendships towards mutual friendships.
Miller: They ditch the friendships that are less fulfilling, similar to what people do.
Machanda: And so our argument is that chimps show a lot of the same social aging characteristics as humans. And they’re doing it in the absence of this sense of mortality. And we know in humans that as we age, we’re better able to regulate our emotions. And that’s also true of chimps. And being able to better regulate your emotions might allow you to kind of just focus more on the positive.
Miller: And those older males aren’t just faded versions of their former selves. Their quality of life might actually improve with age.
Machanda: You know, they’re the ones who’ve lost rank and are kind of losing their physicality, but they’re really being sought after as friends, by other males who are sometimes younger. And so it’s not like they’re losers, they’re really not losers. In so many ways, they’re like living their best life. They have friends, they’re grooming. They’re not necessarily in that rat race for status.
To me, one of the take-home messages of this, we might want to consider this pattern of shrinking your social network and just focusing on a few small, important bonds as part of a natural process of aging, right? That is shared widely across, not just humans, but also chimpanzees.
I think in the media, we’re often thinking of seniors as lonely, and we’re always trying to get them to go out and make new friends. And a lot of times—and it’s happened to me and my mother—a lot of times they will respond, I don’t want new friends. I like the friends I have. And we’re always like, no, like maybe go to the mall and like join this group and like do this and meet these new people. And they’re like nobody wants this, none of us want this. And I do think that’s kind of an important consideration. I think we often think about what’s happening with aging as always a deficit or always a pathology, right? Something that we’re losing and something that’s like, we need to fix this because this is bad. And maybe we need to flip that and think, well, maybe this is a natural part of aging. Maybe this is part of a natural progression.
Instead of trying to get seniors to always make new friends and get them out and about, which maybe they don’t want to do, but give them opportunities to connect with the friends that they already have and keep that vibrant.
Flaherty: Why do we have to age? Long ago, scholars guessed that we just had a certain amount of life force that gets used up, or that making way for the younger generation was nature’s way of keeping a species healthy. While scientists have pretty much rejected those theories, we still don’t know exactly why our bodies inevitably break down.
After all, there are some living things that don’t really age. Mitch McVey, a professor of biology who studies aging, says that there are invertebrates, like the hydra, and some fish and tortoises that seem to age very slowly, if at all.
Mitch McVey: There’s also some evidence that there’s a mammal, called the naked mole rat, which doesn’t age, which shows this negligible senescence. And so a lot of researchers are really interested in why it is that they seem to age so slowly.
Flaherty: It’s fascinating stuff. But why haven’t most animals—including humans—evolved to live for hundreds of years? One theory is that animals usually have their offspring—and pass on their genes—pretty early in life, so having a genetic predisposition to live to a ripe old age doesn’t really play into natural selection.
McVey: So if you tend to be a short-lived species that reproduces very young, the genes that have been selected are probably the flavors of genes that aren’t going to keep your body youthful for long periods of time because it’s not necessary. And in fact, what’s been selected in those organisms is an ability to reproduce young and reproduce many times when they’re young. And those are the genes that then get passed on to their offspring. In essence, they’ve traded long life and long health for an ability to reproduce quickly and populate the earth.
Flaherty: Even if scientists don’t know for sure why we age, they have ideas about the how from looking at what goes on in our cells. When we’re younger, our bodies have the ability to repair themselves, to make fresh, new cells over and over.
McVey: And this happens all the time in our skin, in our digestive systems, and in our immune systems.
Flaherty: For some reason, that system stops working as we age.
McVey: So the replicative senescence theory of aging states that over time, these important cell populations that need to keep dividing to replenish other cells that are dying, lose the ability to do this. And there are a number of different scenarios by which they might lose this ability. Some of it has to do with DNA. Some of it has to do with the way that they recycle worn out proteins. Lots of people are looking into this, but the idea would be that if these cells can no longer divide then the organism as a whole is going to be compromised.
Flaherty: So we’re looking at ways to perhaps keep these cells, to let them divide forever, is that the idea?
McVey: That’s exactly right. Or at least allow them to divide, more times than they are able to do currently.
Flaherty: The tricky part is getting them to do this in a way that doesn’t lead to cancer, the overgrowth of cells. And even if cells can keep replicating, there’s another problem: Over time, they make mistakes in copying their DNA.
McVey: The genome maintenance basically breaks down. There are some scientists who believe that this is the proximate cause of aging and that everything can be traced back to this genome maintenance. I’m not sure if it’s that simple, but I do think that it’s really important, and so this is something that in our lab we’re definitely pursuing.
Flaherty: McVey’s lab looks at genes and aging in fruit flies, which actually have a lot in common with humans when it comes to getting older. As children, they are really fast and agile, scampering up test tubes. But…
McVey: If you keep them around in the lab for about 30 or 40 days, and then you look at how fast they’re able to crawl up the sides of these tubes, sometimes it’s less than half as fast as when they were young, which I can tell you from personal experience exactly mimics my ability to go running in the morning.
Flaherty: In one experiment, he worked with Jimmy Crott, a researcher at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, who had identified a type of bacteria that seemed to have anti-cancer properties.
McVey: We fed this particular bacteria to the fruit flies, and we were absolutely flabbergasted to find out that it extended the life span of the flies by about 30 to 40%. Which in the aging field, that’s actually quite a big deal. It’s along the lines of some of the other best interventions that have been shown to be able to extend lifespan.
Flaherty: This adds to the body of research showing bacteria that live in our bodies affect the aging process, possibly by reducing inflammation. But bacteria are not the oddest thing that’s been shown to slow down aging.
McVey: This is one of the things that always blows the minds of my students. It actually blows my mind too. Because there have been cases where you can induce damage in organisms by feeding them nasty chemicals, for example, like Paraquat, which is something that’s found in many pesticides. And if you give them the right dose, you can extend the organism’s lifespan. So you can actually make them live longer, even though you’re feeding them something that should be toxic.
One idea is that maybe what’s happening is you’re creating a condition called hormesis. And hormesis is basically where by treating these animals with a low dose of this toxic chemical, you have induced the repair systems within that organism’s body to be able to then deal with kind of the constant degradation that happens with aging. It kind of goes along the lines of what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, which I believe has been immortalized in a song at some point.
Flaherty: It goes without saying, but please, don’t try hormesis at home. In fact, there are a lot of other, safer ways slow down aging, as reporter Monica Jimenez found out.
Monica Jimenez: Sarah Booth spends a lot of time thinking about aging and what it means for our society.
Sarah Booth: By the year 2060, a quarter of all Americans will be over 65. That means one in four Americans are going to be considered older adults. There's going to be a 500% increase in the number of centenarians in the next 40 years.
Jimenez: Booth is the director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, or HNRCA. Work there has shown that one of the most basic things we do every day—eating—makes a huge difference in a lot of what we think of as the worst parts of aging.
Booth: Poor nutrition is implicated in osteoporosis, heart disease, frailty, and age-related macular degeneration. Our work focuses on empowering older people to take control of their health. And I would argue one can simply eat a healthy diet, including one that contains fruits and vegetables and dairy foods and then one is on the path to adequate nutrition.
Jimenez: A good diet is associated with a lower risk of macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in older adults. HNRCA studies in mice have shown that just swapping processed grains for whole grains in the diet can have a significant effect on eye health. Booth says it’s never too late to make changes like that.
Booth: Clearly the earlier we adopt optimal nutrition and physical activity, the better it is. However, adopting sound eating habits later in life can also delay the progression of age-related conditions. You can delay how much bone you lose through healthy nutrition and a healthy lifestyle, including physical activity.
Jimenez: That’s another basic thing that can slow aging—staying active. HNRCA scientists were the first to coin the term sarcopenia, which is losing muscle mass as we age. By the time we’re in our 80s, we’ve lost about 30 percent of it.
Booth: Simple exercises, walking, simple resistance exercises, delays that process.
Jimenez: Adding less than an hour of these exercises per week can make the difference between being able to walk later in life or becoming disabled. Like many people who research aging, Booth’s goal isn’t to help everyone live to be 110 or 120.
Booth: So It’s not important enough to live longer, it’s critical for society and the individual that they are also healthier longer.
Miller: If we really want to put aging in perspective, consider that the whole of human existence spans just a brief moment in the long history of the earth.
Noel Heim: My name’s Noel Heim and I'm a lecturer in the department of earth and ocean sciences.
Miller: We’re standing on a wooded trail in the Middlesex Fells Reservation, a few miles off of campus. And we’re here to look at rocks. Lots and lots of rocks.
Heim: Yeah, so, we’ll walk and see what we see.
Miller: Heim is a paleontologist, and he studies ancient life on earth.
Heim: We’re studying bones and shells of things that are no longer living. In my kind of day-to-day work, I think on scales of 10 to hundreds of millions of years. And so I’m kind of interested in big patterns in the history of life.
Miller: So let’s go back in time. Way back. OK, way, way back. Let’s go 300 to 500 million years. What would this forest of maples, oaks, and squirrels have looked like then?
Heim: A lot of the trees and forest communities would have been conifers and things called cycads, which sort of superficially look like palm trees. There would have been insects. This period is known for particularly large insects. So maybe you’ve seen kind of pictures of dragonflies that have six-foot wingspan. So that was in this Pennsylvanian period about 500 million years ago. Not too far from here in Nova Scotia, there’s actually trackways of millipedes that were two-and-a-half or three feet wide and probably six or eight feet long. So no mammals yet. No reptiles really yet. But these big land amphibians were around.
Miller: Any mosquitoes?
Heim: Mosquitoes are a relatively sort of modern, evolved more recently.
Miller: And keep in mind that’s modern in geologic terms—approximately 99 million years ago.
Heim: So the Earth is about four-and-a-half billion years old. And we know that it’s very old because we see all of this complex geology.
Miller: We're following a self-guided geology walking tour that was created by Tufts Geology Professor Jack Ridge. And we meander down the Fells trails with map in hand. It’s kind of like walking back in time.
Heim: So this is actually a volcanic rock. So there was an eruption.
Miller: And Heim even points out a rock that was once carved by a glacier.
Heim: You can see these kind of parallel stripes. So these are glacial striations. So during the last ice age there was kind of a mile of ice over this area and kind of at the bottom were just chunks of rock kind of as it was scraping the bedrock it kind of makes these smooth surfaces and where there’s a rock sticking out, it actually carves these grooves. So we can actually look at this and tell which direction the glacier was moving.
Miller: And what direction was the glacier moving here?
Heim: It was moving in this direction, which looks East-West-ish.
Miller: When did humans end up on the scene?
Heim: Modern humans are about a million years old. And then the best evidence is that they showed up in North America pretty soon after the end of the last ice age.
Miller: So compared to Earth’s existence, and these rocks that surround us, humans are very, very young. It’s said that if the Earth only existed for 24 hours, humans would have only appeared in the last second before midnight.
Heim: We’re insignificant in geologic time.
Miller: There’s upsides to getting older. We get wiser over the years. Our favorite pair of jeans finally break in over time and fit just right. And doesn’t wine always get better with age?
Grace Hafner: MythBusters should do a MythBusters episode on that. Because it really depends on the wine, how you want to age it.
Miller: That’s Grace Hafner, Tufts class of 2013. She lives in Bordeaux, France. And she makes wine for a living. Some that you may have heard of.
Hafner: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc.
Miller: She grew up on a third-generation winery out in Sanoma County, California.
Hafner: I grew up on the property, doing my homework in the tanks during harvest—empty tanks, of course—running around in the caves. It was sort of in high school that I started working, you know, on the bottling line or out in the vineyards during my summer vacation.
Miller: Today, she is an assistant winemaker responsible for all ages of the wine-making process. And she can say with certainty that older isn’t always better when it comes to wine.
Hafner: You know, a really easy example to give you is rosé. That is not something you should drink like three years after it’s been bottled; 2019 you could still get away with drinking this year; 2018, maybe? But if I were buying rosé now, I would get a 2020. That’s not something that you really want to hold onto. You know, some wineries will say, oh yeah, our rosé is meant to age. It’s never meant to age.
Miller: So, why is that?
Hafner: It’s just not something that ages really well because it doesn’t have the structure that a red wine or a white wine that you want to age would have. There are some white wines that, like, a couple of years ago, I had a 20-year-old chardonnay and it was amazing.
It’s good to ask the winery that you’re buying the wines from or check out their website. Most people have a website that has their technical specs. So you can see how it was aged. Barrel aged, that’s something that’s usually going to age a little bit longer.
Miller: As wines age, the acids and alcohols react, forming new compounds. So wine is always evolving, changing in color and flavor and texture over time. Hafner can tell a lot about a wine’s age just by looking at it.
Hafner: With a red wine, it’s going to be a deep red, when it’s pretty young, you might even see a little bit purple. And then as it starts to age, it’ll turn kind of brick.
Miller: And if your wine hasn’t aged gracefully, Hafner says you can always give it a second life.
Hafner: Make vinegar out of it. Or use it to cook.
Flaherty: As for things that do not age well, just think of the movies and TV shows that we used to love but now kinda make us cringe. So how should we deal with them? Kareem Khubchandani is an assistant professor of theater, dance, and performance studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Tufts. He recently talked about a show near and dear to him—the sitcom Will and Grace, which premiered in 1998.
Khubchandani: I came to the U.S. in 2000 as a closeted queer person and came out then. And so Will and Grace was picking up popularity at that time and it was—it taught me how to be queer in a lot of ways. And so I really loved it. It was my initiation into the aspirational gay male America. I just loved it. I watched every episode whenever I could. But I don’t think it’s aged well.
And you know, there was a way that I wanted to be Will, this tan-skinned, dark-haired, somewhat masculine or sometimes masculine, well-to-do professional. There was something very charming about him. He really set the tone for what it’s like to live a good life.
Flaherty: The show ran until 2006. It wasn’t until Khubchandani was visiting his family in India in 2010, and he saw reruns of the show airing there, that he thought about the messages it was sending to the world.
Khubchandani: By that time I had started graduate school and I was thinking more critically about race and gender and sexuality and how they’re embodied. I’m a performance study scholar and I think about how we hold politics in our body, and watching these characters and the way they kind of judged each other the way they embodied whiteness and upper middle-class privilege was really bothersome. And the fact that this was circulating globally, I think, was what really caught my attention. I was like, this can’t and shouldn’t be the story we tell of what queer people live and look like in America, in New York. New York's queer community is so diverse and looks like so much more than the characters we see on this show. And I was worried that this is what we export as global gayness.
You know, the show is very fat-phobic and Jack is always critiquing Will for his weight, even though Will is super thin. Will is always critiquing Jack’s effeminate mannerisms, as is everybody, or Jack is often made to feel bad about his flamboyant gestures and things like that. Karen is always making fun of her Central American maid. So there are all these things that were funny at some point and are really gross to watch now.
I watch the show every day. Still. I still love the show. So one of the things is that I’ve given myself more tools to watch the show and watch it carefully and critically. And to let myself be upset at the things that bother me and to enjoy the things that I think the show’s really good at. And apart from all that, I think I leave room for nostalgia for that version of myself that I used to be.
I've given myself the tools to critique it, but some of the storylines are really funny and I don’t want to give that up. The physical comedy in that show is brilliant. There’s a live episode: They’re stuck in a bathroom together and they are spraying shaving foam on each other and there’s medicines falling out of cabinets and it’s so chaotic and it’s so funny and it’s really good performance.
[audio from clip]
And they break character and start laughing. I laugh every time I watch it. So there are things about it, you know, that still give me a lot of pleasure and I don’t want to give that up.
Our lens for viewing things is always shifting. A lot of people comment on things on the internet as cringe, but there’s a pleasure to cringe as well. And so there’s something kind of joyful to go and watch these things and say, okay, at least we don't say those things anymore.
Flaherty: One show that he thinks has aged gracefully is The Golden Girls.
Khubchandani: Inside of this group of four aging women, they all stage really opposing views around race and around sexuality and around HIV.
[audio from clip]
It’s a show that feels of its time. You know you are watching something that isn’t meant to look like today’s politics, but it was political and it gives an opportunity to think about how things have changed. And there’s so many complicated, really horrifying moments in it, but I still think it has aged really, really well. Because I think the characters on it give each other a lot of grace to make mistakes. So I think it gives the audience room to show some compassion to them in a way that I think other shows don’t.
I think my takeaway from all of this is that it’s not just the politics or the characters, but the shows give us so many other things in addition to the identities and stories, which are, you know, if you think about Sex in the City, it's the clothing, and it's the sex positivity. In The Golden Girls it is the kind of work of care. In Will and Grace, it’s a sense of humor and play. So they’re all problematic, but I think that that doesn’t mean we throw everything out with the problems.
Flaherty: The problem of movies that don’t age well is something that filmmaker Jennifer Burton struggles with. She’s a professor of the practice in film at Tufts.
Jennifer Burton: What do we do with these films that have a cultural place, that have a personal place in our own growing up, in narratives that we found meaningful, and now we see them in a different light? What do we do with them? It's really complicated.
Flaherty: One of the movies she studied as a film student was 1982’s Bladerunner. She remembers her professor talking in detail about the dystopian world and neo-noir imagery, but not much about the women in the movie, two of whom are killed in gruesome ways.
Burton: And it’s almost reveling in this blood and the shooting them in the back. And it’s extremely disturbing to watch for many reasons, but the gender implications are strikingly devoid of connection with these female characters.
Flaherty: Then there is the central romance of the story, between bounty hunter Deckard and an android named Rachel. At one point, Deckard restrains Rachel and orders her to say, among other things, “I want you.” Many people called it passionate back in the 80s. Now many people view it as sexual assault.
Burton: Oh, there’s moments in so many films, just over and over and over, there’s these scenes where you think, do we filter them out? Is that a good thing? Is it shaping what people see as possible for their own lives? I’ve been really grappling with this where I feel like there are so many films that have fantastic elements, and I want to continue to watch them and discuss them, but really at what age, you know, I have two children and now they’re older teenagers, but I thought really hard about exposing them to some of these films, romantic comedies, things that perpetuate ideas about gender relations or about race relations, or about power in, in multiple ways, ableism, and really thinking about, you know, we can watch it and have a conversation, and that’s very valuable, but films have power and that influences people, especially as they’re growing up.
I'm a historian at heart. So I feel that we have to know what we came from in order to understand where we are and where we’re going.
Flaherty: One thing the media still doesn’t have a good track record on is depictions of older adults. Burton tuned into this when her father started a new career in his 70s as an actor. He landed some great roles in shows like Shameless and Baskets.
Burton: All of these really fun parts and mixed in with this were all of these scripts that he would get for auditions, which were strikingly stereotyped, or ageist. Many, many scripts. You know, they’d have characters in adult diapers, it’s a common joke. Or they would be that dirty old man, or they would be the impotent guy or whatever. All underdeveloped characters, usually very sort of punchlines for these older characters. And they were just seen as sort of fodder for developing younger characters.
Flaherty: Based on some of her dad’s experiences in the industry, Burton and her family put together a short streaming comedy series called Old Guy.
[Audio from clip]
Flaherty: She brought her students to work on it, too. And they found research showing that depicting older adults a certain way on television—as inactive, as technologically incompetent—has consequences.
Burton: These things have a real impact on people’s health, on their ability to see what’s possible in their lives. So ageism affects employment, it affects health, it affects people's own psychology. So these are really important things, especially because hopefully we all are going to get old, right?
Flaherty: Burton says one thing that’s heartening is the number of new shows that include older actors, like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in Grace and Frankie, and Michael Douglas in The Kominsky Method.
Burton: It’s just such a joy to see these fantastic actors having so much fun and having scripts that are worthy of their talents. There’s more and more shows that really recognize the complexity of experience of older people. So I find that very hopeful. And also they’re very funny.
Flaherty: Opening the doors into artist Samantha Nye’s current exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is like walking into a nightclub. Mood lighting reflects off walls blanketed in pink tinsel. On a wall-sized video screen, women in swimsuits and lingerie move to sultry music. But the women are not the types you would usually see in a music video. Most of them are well over age 60—the one in the Playboy bunny ears with the feather boa is in her 90s.
Samantha Nye: So she was so excited to have this moment to be sexy. She wanted to just show her cute bunny self.
Flaherty: That’s Nye, who earned her BFA from SMFA at Tufts in 2010, and has long featured older women in her paintings and videos, often in erotic and sensual ways.
Nye: Because we are so conditioned to privilege and romanticize youth, that it almost becomes shocking when someone is excited to show themselves and they are not youthful.
Flaherty: Nye’s MFA exhibit is inspired by the Scopitone films of the 1960s and 70s, which were a sort of precursor to the music videos of today—short films that you could watch by dropping a coin in a jukebox-like machine. In many of them, a singer croons while a bevy of beautiful, scantily clad women dance or parade through. The first one she ever saw, on YouTube, was Neil Sedaka’s Calendar Girl. And she loved it.
Nye: What’s not to love? I mean, they’re so campy, they’re so over the top.
Flaherty: But she also saw their flaws. All the women in them are thin, white—most of all, young. And there were many ways the films had not aged well.
Nye: I think they are racist. I think they are homophobic. I think they are sexist. And that is why I’m so drawn to remaking them. There’s also so much excitement in them that I would rather move the spotlight and kind of correct some of Scopitone’s wrongs than not engage with them at all.
Flaherty: For her reimagining of the films, she cast women of all colors and sizes, queer and transgender women, women in wheelchairs—all of them older adults, and including her own mother and grandmother.
Nye: And it was so immediate to me that the Scopitone would be perfect for this kind of remaking as a way to explore lots of ideas that I was thinking about, but also to celebrate these women who are almost invisible when it comes to, you know, celebration, leisure, sexuality, and pleasure.
Flaherty: The seniors didn’t take much convincing. Her grandmother thought it was all very funny, although sadly, she never got to claim a spot as one of the new Calendar Girls.
Nye: My grandmother actually passed away right before I was shooting my first Scopitone. She was involved in it up until the actual day of shooting and she was no longer with us. So a lot of her friends were even more excited to come together and have this celebration to perform.
Flaherty: Some of those performers have since passed away. Nye says, she misses them.
Nye: I do often advise people in that age where they’re kind of really focused on like that narcissistic kind of twenties state of state of mind to seek out elders and to really just listen to the stories until you understand what's so exciting and valuable about them. I feel like I’m always surprised how little listening is done between generations.
And as much of the work I do within this realm, you know, I still am conditioned by this imperative to stay youthful and that that is more beautiful.
But I've hung out with older women and older people a lot in my life, and they’re still hilarious and they still have desire and they still want to be seen.
Flaherty: So Nye is a fan of intergenerational conversations. When the Russell family of Maine gets together, those conversations usually have a lot to do with teeth. Four generations of Russells have attended Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. There was Edmund Russell, class of ‘33, Edmund Russell Jr., class of ‘62, Keith Russell, class of ‘92. And now Devin Russell is a member of the class of 2025.
Recently, Devin Russell had a Zoom call with his grandfather Edmund—who all the kids call Bumpa—where they talked about what changes and what stays the same as we get older. You can hear his grandmother Margot in the background.
Edmund Russell: You call me all the time. I’m kind of living dental school a little bit through you. There are a lot of anxious moments going through dental school.
Devin Russell: With my experiences so far, it’s definitely been difficult, but it feels like it's going to pay off in the long run. I’m pretty happy about that.
Edmund Russell: You know, Devin, nothing comes easy at dental school. You’re always wondering if you’re ever going make it through, and it doesn’t really sink in until about May of your senior year and you’ve got all your requirements completed. So that’s just the way it is.
Devin Russell: What makes a happy life?
Edmund Russell: You have to have a happy family, Devin. And I was fortunate we had three children and I’ve got seven grandchildren. As luck would have it the three children are within 15, 20 minutes of me. So we have a family all around us all the time…
Margot Russell (in background): …and we love it.
Edmund Russell: …and we love it. Yeah, we love it.
Devin Russell: Growing up so close to all the family, it was amazing. I remember Sundays we would always come together and have dinners at least once a month. And those were always my favorite times.
Devin Russell: What is the best thing about getting older?
Edmund Russell: The best thing? Well, if you like a few aches and pains and that you keep getting more. If you like taking pills and having doctor’s appointments. But we’re fortunate. We’re pretty healthy and we’re still enjoying all of our grandchildren.
Devin Russell: Next one…something that you wish people knew or appreciated? Like something that you wish younger Bumpa knew when he was growing up?
Edmund Russell: I probably wish that my parents stayed alive a little longer. They had good lives, but you know, you miss things too.
Devin Russell: But just cherish the time you have with them?
Edmund Russell: That’s correct. And you do the same. You cherish the times you have with your folks, and you can cherish the times you have with me, too.
Devin Russell: I think I can make that happen.
Miller: To learn more about the work and research of people in this episode, visit go.tufts.edu/aging. Tell Me More is produced by Anna Miller and Julie Flaherty.
Flaherty: Additional reporting by Monica Jimenez and Helene Ragovin.
Miller: Our executive producers are Dave Nuscher, Ronee Saroff and Katie Strollo.
Flaherty: Web production and editing support by Sara Norberg and Mia Palomba.
Miller: Our music is by DeWolf Music and Blue Dot Sessions.
Flaherty: Please subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts.
Miller: Or shoot us an email at email@example.com. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U.
Flaherty: Thanks for listening.