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Portraits of aging

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  • MARNA CLARKE PHOTOS / KAISER HEALTH NEWS / TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
                                At top, Marna Clarke and Igor Sazevich decorated their home last Christmas, when he wasn’t feeling too sick.

    MARNA CLARKE PHOTOS / KAISER HEALTH NEWS / TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

    At top, Marna Clarke and Igor Sazevich decorated their home last Christmas, when he wasn’t feeling too sick.

A dozen years ago, at age 70, Marna Clarke had a dream. She was walking on a sidewalk and rounded a corner. Ahead of her, she saw an end to the path and nothing beyond.

It was a turning point for Clarke. “I realized, ‘Oh my God, I’m nearer the end than the beginning,’” she said. Soon, she was seized by a desire to examine what she looked like at that time — and to document the results.

Clarke, a professional photographer decades earlier, picked up a camera and began capturing images of her face, hair, eyes, arms, legs, feet, hands and torso. In many, she was undressed. “I was exploring the physical part of being older,” she said.

It was a radical act: Older women are largely invisible in our culture, and honest and unsentimental portraits of their bodies are almost never seen.

Before long, Clarke, who lives in Inverness, Calif., turned her lens on her partner, Igor Sazevich, a painter and architect 11 years her senior, and began recording scenes of their life together. She realized they were growing visibly older in these photographs, and she understood she was creating a multiyear portrait of aging.

The collection that resulted, “Time As We Know It,” this year won a LensCulture Critics’ Choice Award, given to 40 photographers on five continents.

“There is a universality and humility in seeing these images which remind us of the power of love and the fragility of life,” wrote Rhea Combs of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, one of the judges.

Early on, some people were offended by the images Clarke displayed at galleries in the San Francisco Bay Area near her home. “I found out there’s a taboo about showing older adults’ bodies — some people were just aghast,” she said.

But many people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s expressed gratitude.

“I learned that older people are dying for some kind of recognition and acceptance and that they want to feel seen — to feel that they’re not invisible,” Clarke said.

Art has many benefits in later life, both for creators and for those who enjoy their work. It can improve health by expanding well-being, cultivating a sense of purpose and countering beliefs such as the assumption that older age is defined almost exclusively by deterioration and decline, Dr. Gene Cohen wrote in “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life,” published in 2000.

Cohen, a psychiatrist, was the first director of the Center for Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University and acting director of the National Institute on Aging from 1991 to 1993.

In 2006, Cohen published findings from the Creativity and Aging Study, conducted in San Francisco, Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Washington, D.C., area. Two groups of older adults were studied: those who participated weekly in arts programs led by professionals and people who went about their usual business. Those in the first group saw doctors less often, used less medication, were more active and had better physical and mental health overall, the study found.

For Clarke, “perspective” and “acceptance of my body as it is” have been benefits of her 12-year project. As a young and middle-aged woman, she said, she was “obsessed” with and anxious about her appearance. “Now, I think there’s a beauty that comes out of people when they accept who they are,” she said. “It’s altered how I look at myself and how I see others.”

In early August, Clarke, now 82, found herself at another turning point — the death of Sazevich, 93, who had lymphoma. The couple had been together since 2003 but hadn’t married.

Sazevich had fallen three times in the months prior, broken his hip, contracted pneumonia in the hospital and returned home on hospice. As he lay in bed on his final day, receiving morphine and surrounded by family, two dogs belonging to a daughter came close, checking on him every hour. At the moment of his death, they growled, probably because “they felt a change in the energy,” Clarke said.

“It was amazing — I have never been through an experience like that in my life,” she said. “There was so much love in that room, you could cut it with a knife. I think it’s changed me. It’s given me a glimpse of what’s possible with humans.”

It takes a community to comfort an older adult coping with loss, just as it takes a community to raise a child.

Everywhere she goes in Inverness, Clarke runs into people who tell her how sorry they are for her loss and ask if they can help. “I am overwhelmed by the care pouring over me from my friends and family,” she said. “It’s like a huge embrace.”

Clarke said she is still “up and down emotionally … questioning what death is” as she processes her loss.

Eventually, she wants to restart work on “Time As We Know It.”

“Because it’s about aging me,” she said. “My aging. And that’s what I’m committed to. It’s given me a purpose. And when you’re growing old, you need to have something you love and makes you feel alive.”

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Kaiser Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues.

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