Aging Out Loud
By Deonna Kelli Sayed
Winston Salem resident, Carol Roan, will turn 86 years old in August.
“There seems to be an age,” she says, “when you suddenly become wise and inspirational instead of invisible. For me, that age was 84.”
She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress in a short film at Cannes, and she continued publishing her written work.
May is Older Americans Month. This year, the theme is Age Out Loud. Carol is doing exactly that in hopes that older adults will be a lot louder when it comes to living.
She demonstrates that aging doesn’t equate to erasure. If anything, getting older offers freedom to tell new stories.
Carol, by the way, has a lifetime of stories.
For one, she should be dead by now.
She was supposed to die thirty years ago. In her mid 50s, Carol was diagnosed with primary biliary cirrhosis, a rare and incurable autoimmune liver disorder.
The doctor told her that she had seven years to live. He explained how each remaining year would become more debilitating.
Carol experienced two weeks of shock where she “couldn’t read street signs and directional signals.” She told her three adult children. She got her papers in order.
Carol mentally prepared to die.
An experimental medical trial saved her life. Every day, she takes a pill that has bought her more time. A lot more time.
If you ask Carol about her reclamation, she might not mention the pill at all. She will tell you that creativity — singing, writing, and later, dancing – saved her more than once.
She will explain that if more old people had the chance to be creative, they would feel less old.
Not arts-and-crafts creative. “I don’t appreciate attempts to give old people crafty things to do and call that creative. I don’t like to see the arts used that way. It makes both the people and the art too small,” she says.
“Old people” are her words. Not mine.
At her age, she’s earned the right to have strong opinions. That’s one of the benefits of being in your 80s, she shares.
You can say whatever the hell you want.
At that point, “you’ve already met a bunch of assholes,” she reminds me.
Carol’s voice booms around the room. She’s standing in her doorway to show me just how loud her voice becomes when she unleashes.
She became a professional singer at age 18. Carol won a full post-grad scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She was the second woman ever to sing at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
She holds a B.M. in vocal pedagogy and a M.M. in vocal performance.
Singing empowered her to eventually leave a two-decade long abusive marriage. She started over in her 40s, and as a single mother, teaching voice lessons.
There was a time Carol was the go-to voice coach for Philadelphia rock bands.
Carol shifted gears and received a M.S. in Business Policy from Columbia University Graduate School of Business (at 50, she was the oldest woman in the class). She helped establish a software company. Carol worked as an independent consultant for a while.
Then, she was supposed to die, but didn’t. Carol didn’t want to wait around any longer. She started writing.
In 2006, she received a fellowship to summer writing program in Russia where she studied with author Gina Ochsner.
Carol was in her early seventies at the time. She wasn’t a MFA student, yet author Margaret Atwood, the fellowship judge, had read her work and deemed her worthy of the course.
Carol felt guilty for taking a slot from a younger writer.
“I would go around telling everyone I was 72 years old, whether they wanted to hear it or not,” she remembers.
Carol realized that she was internalizing ageism by assuming that she had no right to be there. Yet, her stories mattered. Carol’s age gave her an advantage: with so much life on her bones, she had a lot to say.
She returned with an idea about an anthology featuring aged writers. With most literary journals from university programs with young MFA students on staff, there weren’t many publications giving space to older voices.
Carol served as the President of Winston Salem Writers. Before that, she was the President of Poets and Writers in New Jersey. Her work includes co-editing Out In Silence, a publication for child-abuse survivors, as well as several published short stories, and non-fiction books.
When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers Over 50 came out in 2011.
The anthology, dreamt up in Russia and edited by Carol and Vicky Lettmann, was met with praise and became required reading in a graduate course at California State University, Long Beach.
Carol has done a few things during her life. She still teaches voice and public speaking out of her West End apartment. She continues to write, to sing, and to thrive.
At 84 years old, she started something completely unexpected.
In 2016, Wake Forest University hosted the first Aging Re-imagined Symposium (2017’s symposium was held last week). Carol had submitted an abstract for a paper on how we can all sing, no matter the age.
“I wasn’t an academic. I wasn’t anyone important,” she says. Carol was surprised when her paper was accepted. She was now in an unexpected conversation with researchers, including neuroscientists, to speak about how creativity has kept her healthy.
That is where Carol met Wake Forest University’s Director of Dance, Christina Tsoules Soriano.
Christina had helped with pilot studies regarding dance classes for aging adults with Parkinson’s. Through the experience, she realized that participants responded better to improvisation rather than memorization of movement.
She now works with Dr. Christina Hugenschmidt, a neuroscientist at WFU’s School of Medicine’s Sticht Center on Aging, on a Blue Cross Blue Shield funded study. The eight-week program looked at improvisational movement intervention for aging adults with mild cognitive impairment.
After her experiences with the pilot studies, Christina had the idea of bringing multidisciplinary researchers together, as well as others in the community, to talk about aging.
“I started to spend time with older adults in an artistic practice, and you realize that scientists aren’t talking to artists as much as we should be around these ideas,” she shares.
The symposium created space to bring demographers, academics, artists, and community members together because “we want to be living longer better. We want to have more people who can address some of the issues where resources aren’t all there. It’s not all up to government people, or scientists, to address some of these challenges around aging.”
She explains that one of the biggest stigmas around getting older is that people believe that they stop learning once they reach a certain age.
Research, Christina says, proves otherwise. “What I love about dance, and specifically improvisational dance, is that assumptions gets turned upside down. Everyone is capable of generating movement. Everyone is capable of creatively responding to a prompt that asks you to respond with your body.”
Christina says this work has impacted her in unexpected ways.
“I learn so much from older adults in terms of what is the essence and core of movement. It is so raw and so clear in older adult communities.”
Carol’s presentation at the symposium offered another type of clarity: she spoke about the scientific evidence that humans sang before we spoke.
“Our vocal mechanism is set up to sing,” Carol insists. Therefore, there’s no reason why people should stop singing at any age.
Carol is adamant when she says this: “There is no physical reason for creativity to end.”
She is living proof. In 2016, Carol made her acting debut as a blind grandmother in a short independent film emerged out of Greensboro’s 48 Hour Film Project. Wake Up Cannes is from HP Masters of Short Film Project. The piece made it to the actual Cannes Film Festival where Carol received a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Other things started happening, too. Christina invited Carol to join a community dance class that had developed out of the Parkinson’s project. The class, held once a week, is free and open for older adults, including healthy agers.
“I’m a klutz,” Carol warned her, sharing decades old jokes about her well-documented clumsiness.
However, Carol had recently began to feel off-balance when she walked, and had started to use a cane. This scared her. A sidewalk stumble for someone her age could break a hip.
Carol needed a way to “convene with the body,” as Christina refers to the dance class experience.
“What is so beautiful about people like Carol, and there are other similar spirited people in the class, that she often goes to a different place in the class. She closes her eyes and she will move,” Christina says.
“Carol isn’t looking to see if it looks like me. She’s not looking to see if she looks like the people around her or how it measures up. She is having an authentic movement experience and it becomes contagious. I really believe someone like Carol relies on this in her week in a way to feel authentically human.”
A few weeks after Carol started the dance classes, she realized she wasn’t using the walking cane anymore.
Christina approached Carol to participate in a public dance performance, the Goldberg Project, based on the Goldberg Variations by Bach.
The dance would be performed at Wake Forest University. The dancers would be intergenerational and professional, and some would come from Christina’s community classes.
“I can’t,” Carol thought.
“I was really interested in having an intergenerational dance experience,” Christina said. “One, as a choreographer, I really wanted to move into that space as a creative challenge. Also, because part of combating some of the stigma around aging is having younger generations spend more time with older people.
If you do that in a dance studio, then that becomes a really ripe and generous space to have a meaningful exchange.”
Carol was not going to be part of that meaningful exchange. She was insecure. She was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to remember the choreography. She was, most certainly, not a dancer.
“I felt that I had no right to be there,” Carol reveals.
But, she decided to do it. She showed up for rehearsals. She remembered the moves. She got on stage and performed with professional dancers, with children, including Christina’s daughter.
Last August, Carol took the stage with fellow dancers at Wake Forest University. Salem College later hosted a performance.
She was paid for her work.
“Imagine, at 84 years old, to become a professional dancer!” Carol says.
The possibilities are endless, she reminds me.
Carol was born in 1931 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She will tell you that she has metaphorically died many times. There were years of childhood abuse by her parents. Later came the gaslighting husband who diminished Carol to the point that she lost her voice, literally, until she reclaimed it and saved her life.
Then, the actual death sentence arrived during her 50s.
She admits that her younger self was “in no emotional condition to be talked to.” But if 20-year-old Carol would have listened, 85-year-old Carol would have said not to worry about being perfect.
She would have told her 70-year-old self: there’s more ahead than you can imagine.
Carol now knows a few things for sure. She knows there are no absolutes. The really important stuff in life turns out to be a paradox. Some truths, like creativity, are often inexplicable but always accessible.
“We think of creativity as a gift,” Carol points out. “I’ve heard people complain about not having a creative bone in their body. Well, duh, you do because creativity is inherent.”
She says that the language around aging equates getting old with losing brain cells.
That’s just wrong. She insists “every experience that you have either creates a new pathway or strengthens new pathways in the brain.”
Christina’s research suggests this to be true, and she hopes current and future studies will yield significant data that dancing is essential to healthy aging.
By the year 2040, almost a quarter of Americans will be 65+. This will influence everything from retirement planning, health care, to local social services. It will impact how cities are redesigned to function, and will change the language we use to talk about getting older.
There is no reason for that to mean a cessation of joy, of experience.
For Carol, joy is to write, sing, dance, and create a way through the aging process. She knows that becoming an old person isn’t a final chapter in a life story. It isn’t a reason to give up.
“You are not at the beginning of the end,” she offers. “You can be at the beginning.”
To learn more about Carol Roan and her vast work, visit carolroan.com
Christina Soriano will offer an improvisational dance class this summer through Wake Forest University Lifelong Learner’s Program. http://lifelongwake.wfu.edu/terms/summer-2017/. For more info about her community classes in Winston, email email@example.com
Deonna Kelli Sayed is a writer and storyteller. To learn more about her, visit dksayed.com. Email firstname.lastname@example.org