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Steve Lopez: What ‘Barbie’ teaches us about the beauty of growing old

I was 5 ½ when Barbie was born. I didn’t take much notice at the time — or ever — and hadn’t intended to catch the new movie starring the plastic princess.

But I got curious the other day when, in the middle of a Sacramento hearing on aging, Little Hoover Commission chairman Pedro Nava mentioned the summer box office sensation.

GOLDEN STATE with a rising/setting sun in the middle

California is about to be hit by an aging population wave, and Steve Lopez is riding it. His column focuses on the blessings and burdens of advancing age — and how some folks are challenging the stigma associated with older adults.

The commission — an independent state oversight agency that checks up on how our tax dollars are spent — was asking questions of public officials and others to see if enough progress is being made on a 10-year-long project called the Master Plan for Aging.

Nava, commenting on the daunting challenge of recruiting a big enough workforce to care for the state’s rapidly growing population of older adults, said that society has done a good job of demeaning and marginalizing older adults.

Then the conversation turned to pop culture. “I don’t know how many of you have seen the ‘Barbie’ movie,” Nava said.

I wondered where he was going with that, but he quickly recalled a scene in which the eternally youthful Barbie, played without a wrinkle by Margot Robbie, travels from Barbieland to Los Angeles. She takes a seat on a bench, next to a white-haired 91-year-old woman, and is transfixed.

“You’re so beautiful,” Barbie tells the woman.

OK, I thought. Maybe I should see that movie, which hits on something I’ve been writing about since I began the Golden State column six months ago. We’re all getting older, for better and for worse. It’s okay, and generally speaking, better than the alternative.

I’ll admit to being a bit concerned, back in January, that writing about aging might feel limiting, or maybe even depressing at times.

None of that has happened.

Sure, I’ve written about people suffering the pain of loss, financial hardship and chronic disease.

But speaking of “Barbie’s” message, I was inspired by my visit with actress Mimi Rogers and hearing her thoughts on aging naturally and with grace. I got a kick out of watching Benny Wasserman, 88, hit 90 mph fastballs in a batting cage. Ken and Audrey Mattlin, in their 80s, are defying stereotypes and embracing change with their family of robots in Bakersfield.

And Somkene Okwuego, a 23-year-old USC gerontology grad now studying to be a geriatric dentist, is living hope that the young haven’t forgotten the old. She’s also a reminder that job opportunities in healthcare, technology, housing and transportation abound for millennials and Gen-xers as the global population races toward the point at which those over 65 outnumber those under 18.

Before I tuned in to Thursday’s hearing on aging, I searched my emails for leads on older adults who continue reinventing themselves. And I began researching love among older adults after interviewing a woman who emailed me to say that, at 71, she’s enjoying a robust affair with an 81-year-old man, and they are having, in her words, “wild monkey sex.” We had a nice chat, during which I did not ask for details.

And she’s not the only reader who wondered why I haven’t touched on twilight romance yet. So you might read all about it here soon, if I can figure out the right treatment, and squeeze in a trip to a Coachella Valley restaurant/night club where, I’m told, age stands in the way of nothing.

And just as I was taking stock of where I’ve been and where I’m going, the Little Hoover Commission was doing the same with Gov. Newsom’s directive to get the state ready for 2030, when people 60 and older will make up a quarter of the state’s population.

The short answer is that things appear to be going reasonably well halfway through the third year. One witness — a healthcare policy consultant— testified that California’s work has been a model for many of the 20 states implementing similar programs.

The problem is the size of the undertaking, which involves more than 100 initiatives and multiple state agencies, as well as coordination with counties and philanthropic groups.

Fernando Torres-Gil, of the UCLA Policy Center for Research on Aging, serves on a committee overseeing the master plan’s implementation. He testified at the hearing, expressing both optimism and some concerns about pulling together all the people needed to make the plan work. At times, he said, it’s like “trying to herd kittens.”

Susan DeMarois, director of the Department of Aging, told commissioners progress has been made toward each of the five main master plan goals – equal access to quality healthcare; remedies for isolation, discrimination, abuse and neglect; 1 million new high-quality caregiving jobs; and financial security for all aging adults.

Early achievements include expansion of Medi-Cal coverage, a $1 billion-plus investment in healthcare workforce development, and nearly $1 billion earmarked for senior housing for low-income adults (a major goal is to reverse a trend in which older adults are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population).

“With extreme humility,” DeMarois told commissioners, “we also recognize that our work has just begun.”

Commissioners had lots of questions.

How much money has been spent, and can the digital tracker be improved so taxpayers can keep tabs on progress? What happens if the state runs low on cash? Will the plan still be in play after Newsom leaves office? Is there enough legislative support to keep the early momentum going, or to persuade state department heads to continue prioritizing the master plan?

Some but not all the questions were answered, but there’s another hearing next month.

It’s anyone’s guess if there will be another “Barbie” moment, but Nava told me he enjoyed the movie. He said he had read that director Greta Gerwig resisted a suggestion to cut the scene in which Barbie compliments Ann Roth, who portrays the 91-year-old and is an Academy-award winning costume designer in real life.

“It’s the heart of the movie,” Gerwig told Rolling Stone.

So, in addition to saying something about motherhood and feminism, it seems that Gerwig wanted to comment on our youth-obsessed culture.

Under the Golden State banner, I’d already served as a restaurant critic, reviewing early-bird specials. I figured I had no choice but to broaden my scope and become a movie critic.

So on Thursday night I bought a ticket, a bag of popcorn and a soda, and took a seat in the company of moviegoers dressed in what appeared to be Barbie-inspired outfits. (No one told me that I was supposed to dress like Ken.)

Without giving too much way, Barbie develops a touch of cellulite and begins to fear death, neither of which are supposed to exist in Barbieland, where everyone is forever young and perfect. So she travels to the real world — or Venice, Los Angeles, at least — to get herself right. And here in the City of Angels she is shocked to find that men, rather than women, run the world, and she concludes, unlike many of us, that aging is something to embrace rather than fear.

The character played by Roth is reading the Los Angeles Times while seated on the bench, so we know she’s a woman of good taste. When Barbie tells her she’s beautiful, the woman flashes a big smile and says:

“I know it.”

Two thumbs up.

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