Members of Joan Zald’s family tend to live long lives, but not happy ones. After watching a favorite aunt begin to “socially withdraw” in her late sixties and become obsessed with her health, Zald worried that she, too, would experience old age as joyless and unproductive. So, as the social worker and photographer approached her own seventieth birthday in 2004, she started to interview and photograph older people leading “active, creative, and productive lives.” She did interviews around the country, but Ann Arbor is well represented–her local subjects included Doris Sperling, the retired teacher who cofounded the Family Learning Institute tutoring center; U-M psychology prof emeritus Bob Kahn, who began a “whole new life” as coauthor, at eighty, of a well-received book on aging; and pathologist-turned-painter Sheldon Markel.
Zald found a New York agent, but selling the project as a book was tough. “Lots of publishing companies didn’t want to deal with photographs, or they didn’t want to deal with aging, or they already had a book on aging,” she explains. But last spring, Portraits of Creative Aging was finally published by a small press in Indiana, and Zald, at age seventy-four, is happily promoting it. “People are living longer and healthier lives,” she says. “There is a third age for people after their retirement. The issue is how to spend those years.