'A Certain Age' reflective, uplifting


May 08, 1991|By Steve McKerrow

Aging is a lot harder on the young than on the old. Or at least, contemplating the inevitable process seems to be most difficult when you are younger, judging from a nice edition of the PBS series "Smithsonian World" tonight.

When people actually reach "A Certain Age," as the 8 p.m. show is sub-titled (channels 22, 26 and 67), "all the fighting and the turmoil's finished," says dancer/choreographer Agnes de Mille. What remains, she suggests, is patience and wisdom.

De Mille, however, is the only celebrity among seven subjects of the engaging show. All are well beyond the 65-plus age group that is America's fastest growing population segment, and one ebullient fellow is 100.

We see this Italian immigrant, Santo Piacenza, a former restaurateur, at a huge birthday party in his honor. He tells the crowd he just renewed his driver's license for four years, "and I want to get my money's worth." He also reflects that "my father died young -- he was 72."

Without conventional narration, "A Certain Age" offers reflective, fairly uplifting commentary from a nice range of people, from a native American who was born on the Fort Sill military post in Oklahoma to a Vermont dairy farmer afflicted with polio much of his adult life.

And with their thoughts on aging, we also get interesting glimpses of the historical cultures they have lived through, from the trials of racial discrimination to the difficulties of the immigrant experience.

If there is a common theme, it is the sense that while leading disparate lives, these people have come to terms with the reality of aging. They have found it not so much terrifying or depressing as surprising.

"I'm surprised at myself for being 80," says a poet, Jan Massy. And Texas rancher Bob Green says, "it really doesn't seem like it's been that long."

One nice segment also shows school children visiting a nursing home to write stories about the residents, as the teacher explains the visits, "connect them [the residents] with the world outside and also with very important parts of themselves inside."

The program developed from a project of the National Portrait Gallery in which prominent older Americans have been interviewed in front of an audience as a kind of living portrait. De Mille's scenes are excerpts of such a presentation.

And Smithsonian historian Marc Pachter, who conducted the interviews, adds some thoughtful commentary, as he calls aging, "a process by which all of us learn not to fear growing old."

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