Aging app FaceApp is giving people a warped idea of what getting older truly feels like

The way people are reacting to their FaceApp photos — with shock, and even disgust — says a lot about how we think about the inevitable human process.
Image: The way people react to artificially aged photos -- with shock, and even disgust -- says a lot about how we think about the inevitable aging process.
Growing older doesn’t just mean winkles — although there’s plenty of fearmongering about those.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Caitlin Kelly

If you really want to know what old age looks like and feels like and sounds like — forget playing around with FaceApp, whose AI technology can age your appearance in seconds on your phone. Simply plug in a current photo and the app will generate a falsely wrinkled face, sagging jowls and wispy white hair. But while the app has quickly gone viral, with artificially aged photos of celebrities and friends alike popping up all over social media, such images have almost nothing in common with the true experience of aging in America.

You just can’t imagine old age. You have to live it firsthand.

Fearing and dreading the physical changes of old age often means shying away from what comes next — if you’re even lucky enough to live a long life.

Obviously, the app is supposed to be a surface-level look. But the way people are reacting to these photos — with shock, and even disgust — says a lot about how we think about the inevitable human process of growing older. Indeed, fearing and dreading the physical changes of old age often means shying away from what comes next — if you’re even lucky enough to live a long life. The most fortunate women will now live into our 80s or beyond, and we’re statistically likely to outlive male partners or husbands. This means that growing older doesn’t just mean wrinkles — although there’s plenty of fearmongering about those thanks to our obsession with youthful beauty. For many women, and plenty of men too, growing older is as much a psychological transition than an aesthetic one.

Our 100-apartment building is filled with a pretty specific demographic — older residents who sell their family homes, move in here and either leave feet first or eventually move out to end their days in a nursing home. Many arrive here in their 70s, 80s or 90s; ambulances pulling into and out of our driveway are a common occurrence.

Get the think newsletter.

The reason? Empty big houses are expensive to maintain. Older people can stay close to lifelong friends in town. The building’s entryway is flat and smooth, easy for someone with a cane, walker or even wheelchair to navigate. There’s a small stone bench near the front door, shaded by a cherry tree, where some residents sit for hours, often with an aide by their side.

For us, their neighbors, and certainly for them, old age touches almost every part of their lives.

Why would an app projecting old age even appeal? Maybe because later life simply remains a mystery to most of us until we get there ourselves, a phase younger people rarely even see depicted in a visceral or even very realistic way. Not in the media. Not in movies. Not on Netflix. Not in advertising, unless it’s for medication or funeral insurance.

When older faces do appear, they’re often smooth, shiny and surgically altered — not what 80 or 90 looks like for regular folk.

Few of us now live or regularly visit with someone many decades our senior. We move to cities for work or school, often leaving our elders many miles away. Once we’re busy with our own families, time off is a precious resource. How many choose to spend it with someone they assume they have little in common with?

Both my grandmothers died the year I turned 18 and I never even met my grandfathers. I still miss one of them terribly, an imperious grande dame from Chicago who loved me deeply, made custard for me, taught me — a quiet Canadian — how to argue and restored my battered spirit when I fled to her house from boarding school to sit contentedly in front of her TV, a rare treat.

Thanks to increasingly segregated living — the norm for most of us — I spent my early adult life as a renter around my peers, not as a homeowner. Now I share a lobby and laundry room with neighbors who actually get defined-benefit pensions, some of whom served in World War II.

One of them, a retired drama teacher, knew my family was headed back to Canada soon for a vacation and gave us $25 in out-of-circulation Canadian dollar bills for us to use. It took me a minute to figure out why one looked so unfamiliar — it had been issued starting in 1937 and featured the image of King George VI instead of Queen Elizabeth.

Have a response to a THINK piece that would make a good letter to the editor? Now you have a chance to send us one. Click here to find out how.

Attending a local church for a few decades, even sporadically, has also revealed the complexity of inter-generational life and given me a more nuanced and intimate view of aging. A tall, self-possessed schoolteacher, once aloof and a bit ferocious, now arrives with his aide, so hunched over he’s barely recognizable. An older woman with long white braids, who sang for years in our choir, died last year. It’s comforting to know the community will welcome you at any age.

Attending a local church for a few decades, even sporadically, has also revealed the complexity of inter-generational life and given me a more nuanced and intimate view of aging.

This year, our minister’s wife started a weekly meditation group, which draws about a dozen women each Wednesday morning. The youngest is maybe 50, the oldest 95. Nowhere else do I sit and share deeply personal stories like this, and assumed we’d have little in common, divided so deeply by generations.

Yet three of us, it turns out, survived sudden abandonment by our husbands. Several have also faced and survived cancer, thankful there to find compassion and understanding. Our stories emerge slowly, over time, as we realize how many experiences we do share, despite the decades that divide us.

Pain and joy know no age limit. They certainly can’t be experienced simply by painting on a few digital wrinkles. But while the FaceApp is not helping to mitigate our many cultural hang-ups about aging, perhaps it can start an important conversation about the real challenges — and benefits — of old age.