Meet the Famous Author and the Thousands of Researchers Who Want Your Life to be Healthy, Happy and Meaningful
Author Isabel Wilkerson is not one to waste words on small talk. “We are warehousing the crown jewels of our society,” she declared, just a few minutes into her keynote address to the more than three thousand researchers, clinicians, educators, students, journalists and other attendees at the annual conference of the Gerontological Society of America. We are neglecting “the libraries among us,” she went on. By “libraries,” she meant living human beings: older Americans whose stories are a part of our history. Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, spent fifteen years gathering and preserving many of those stories in the course of researching and writing The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010), her sweeping account of the Great Migration of six million African-Americans who made the journey out of the Jim Crow South to start new lives in the North, Midwest and West. In the book, she zeroes in on three main characters, unspooling their stories in great depth and detail after hundreds of hours of interviews. Wilkerson is also the author of Caste: The Origin of our Discontent (2020), a treatise on how racism in the United States is in reality the bedrock of a deeply entrenched caste system.
At the GSA convention, Wilkerson spoke not only of the value the life stories told in The Warmth of Other Suns have had in contributing to the historical and cultural record, but the value those narratives accrued, in the actual telling, for the people who told them: they gave themselves the profound gift of chronicling and affirming the dignity of their own lives.
The Great Migration was not just about resilience—a word Wilkerson hears a lot when people talk to her about her book—it was, she assured her GSA audience, about “human beings who sought fulfilment.” It was about people who sought and found “self-agency at every stage of their lives,” who migrated to “live the dreams they had for themselves.” It was about people who insisted, against all odds, that their lives had meaning.
As Wilkerson spoke from a giant screen, I took a quick look around the huge ballroom of the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis. Though I was briefly disappointed that she was speaking to us live via video instead of in person, I was already over it, and it looked like everyone else was too. Wilkerson had us in the palm of her virtual hand. And by “us” I do not mean an audience of people over 50, as you might expect at a gerontological conference. Thirty percent of the registered attendees were students. Forty-two percent of all GSA members are 45 or younger.
The young researchers and clinicians who have committed to careers in gerontology (which is the study of the physical, mental and social aspects of aging, as opposed to geriatrics, which is a medical specialty focused on the care and treatment of older persons) understand the urgency of the need for their work. Over the next three decades, the number of adults 65 and older in the US will grow from 561 million (2020) to a projected 837 million (2050). The biggest jump will be in the 80+ group: from 13.2 million in 2020 to a projected 30.9 million in 2050. We are living longer. But a longer lifespan does not necessarily mean a longer “healthspan,” as one speaker called it, meaning the amount of your life you spend in mostly-good health. And health and wealth are closely tied. With these dramatic increases in the numbers of older Americans will come increases in the number of fragile Americans, many of whom are already struggling financially. One recent study of the 100 largest U.S. metro areas showed that 37 percent of single residents 65 and older are unable to afford their basic needs.
Many of us will be ok. But many won’t.
Which begs the question: is there a place for storytelling and meaning-making, for all kinds of self-expression, at the funding table—public or private—when basic needs are so pressing?
As a writer and teacher of memoir writing, I wanted to know. As a newly minted Medicare enrollee, I wanted to know. I decided to seek out seminars and presentations that focused on writing, storytelling, really any kind of creative pursuit, to see if researchers could tell me whether there was reason to believe that creativity can contribute to healthy longevity, and to the sense of meaning and fulfilment of which Isabel Wilkerson had spoken so eloquently.
Deep in the GSA schedule, I found a symposium titled “On the Threshold: Creativity in Mid-Life,” which included a presentation called “Arts and Creativity and Their Impact on Health and Well-Being: A Systematic Review of the Evidence,” by Roger O’Sullivan of the Institute of Public Health in Ireland. The Institute’s systematic review included studies of arts programs in 18 different countries involving more than seven thousand participants aged 50 to 94. What the reviewers found was that arts programs do indeed “advance public health.” Dance, of any kind, scored very high on their multi-pronged evaluation scale, because it has so many different kinds of benefits: physical, social, emotional and cognitive (remembering steps). Instrumental music, singing, visual arts, drama and theatre all ranked highly. Writing was not specifically included in the review, though O’Sullivan speculated it may’ve been absorbed into the “visual/creative” category.
Professor Carolyn Adams Price of Mississippi State University has been doing related research, into the value of what she calls “serious leisure:” a creative avocation that may have started as a hobby but has come to mean much more, including the desire to share your creative work—in a gallery, on stage, as part of a local festival. Her study of more than 500 creatively active older Americans identified benefits in four areas: calming, a sense of identity, a feeling of connection to God or nature, and recognition from others. By recognition, she meant the pleasure of sharing and community, rather than fame.
Of the three people Wilkerson profiled in depth in The Warmth of Other Suns, she told us that the one who seemed most vibrant, yet content, in late life was Ida Mae Gladney, who was never rich, but who, as she grew old, had gradually become the beloved, unofficial block grandmother in her southside Chicago neighborhood. It was a role she took seriously. She knew everyone, including the drug dealers and the police. “Serious leisure” can mean many things, and this was Ida Mae Gladney’s version. And now she had the added pleasure of telling Isabel Wilkerson all about it.
Gladney, who lived to be 91, “lived in the moment, surrendered to whatever the day presented, and remained her true, original self,” wrote Wilkerson. “Her success was spiritual, perhaps the hardest of all to achieve. And because of that, she was the happiest and lived the longest of them all.”
Ann Hedreen is an author (Her Beautiful Brain), teacher of memoir writing, and filmmaker. Ann and her husband, Rustin Thompson, own White Noise Productions and have made more than 150 short films and several feature documentaries together, including Quick Brown Fox: An Alzheimer’s Story. Ann is currently at work on a book of essays.
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and the The Silver Century Foundation.