I would argue that this book is less a how to book on aging and more a plea for those who have not yet aged to the point of infirmary or elderly or even somewhat slowing down to be more considerate of those who are aged.
"Aged" has so many different meanings these days. Used to be old was 50, now it's when you stop living, when you give up, when the years of treating your physical and mental health for shit and said years come rumbling back on top of you. If you're still active, if you're still learning, if you move and think and moderate, then the sagging skin doesn't sag as much, the white hair doesn't matter as much, and the joys of living are larger than the accumulated pains of living.
Sadly, I don't know that I'd have been positively influenced in any meaningful way if I had read this book when young. Currently being in the middle, not young, not old, I'd have to say I see the wall of old age that I'm going to crash into, but it won't be head first. I'm going feet first with the intent of jumping off it.
Growing old means "still alive" and what a "privilege" (the book's word) that would be!
This book is worth reading, as many of the School of Life books are, I recommend it.
It sees ageing as a lifelong process, not something confined to its latter stages, and an opportunity to develop –indeed an intrinsic part of life itself.
A long life signals that we’re privileged, either through genetic serendipity, affluence or sheer luck.
This acknowledgement of ageing involves mourning, because there are inevitable losses associated with getting older, whether in function
or the death of friends and family, or the recognition of one’s own mortality.
Gina’s fear of ageing is directed at some amorphous, creeping, malign change, which prevents her from appreciating the benefits that she has already derived from the ageing process.
The capacity to be surprised, curious and engaged isn’t the prerogative of young people
and indeed it can intensify as we age.
The man-child holds on tightly to his video games and comics, and refuses to change. He equates being grown up with joylessness.
But perhaps it’s less about having a mortgage or a pension and more about learning to take responsibility for your spending; about being able to defer gratification instead of insisting ‘I want it now’; about not saying the first thing that comes into your head and thinking about other people as well as yourself?
similarly, we can try to foster in ourselves qualities that deepen and enrich over the years. These qualities differ for each of us, but for most people they include finding enduring sources of meaning –in work, or through relationships, interests or making a social contribution; getting to know themselves; making genuine contact with other people; and developing the capacity to love –whether people, ideas or experiences.
But the ability to laugh, like any other emotional facility, develops through use, and finding oneself convulsed with laughter, decades after childhood when it’s so common, is sweet indeed.
It’s much easier to adopt this outlook if we don’t take a long lifespan for granted, but recognize instead that it isn’t given to the majority of people in the world, especially the developing world: that to age is in fact to be blessed.
Those who age best are those who travel lightest, who can jettison the prescriptive ideas they’ve cleaved to at one stage of their lives when they find them ill-suited to another. A certain suppleness of spirit is needed.
Letting go of old narratives can be an extremely painful business: it involves mourning what never happened as well as what did, and admitting failure, wrong-headedness and poor decisions. Most unforgivably, it demands that we recognize that life unfurls beyond our control.
For to age is to live and to live is to age, and being anti-age (as so many products proudly proclaim themselves) is tantamount to being anti-life.
By embracing age we embrace the life process itself, with all its pain, joy and difficulty. If
metaphors). We’re no longer at risk of an invasion of triffids or Martians but of old people –invariably portrayed as a major social problem and a drain on resources, rather than as a resource themselves.
What they don’t realize is that they’re banking disgust that they’ll have to draw on themselves –ourselves.
this unique feature of ageism: that it’s prejudice against one’s future self.
It’s fuelled, as we’ll see, by a refusal to admit that we too will age –by a profound dis-identification with old people.
people. Clare Temple in Norah Hoult’s remarkable 1944 novel, There Were No Windows, is a woman aware of her creeping dementia:
Older people are rarely referred for psychotherapy
because depression is seen as just another inevitable aspect of old age.
since third-agers like Sara and Clive have convinced themselves that, with enough discipline and self-control, the body can always be transcended. But it can’t. Perhaps
For the truth is that we all have to go into that good night eventually, gently or otherwise –to deny this is nothing more than magic thinking.
They encourage you to deal with the prejudice against old people not by challenging it but by trying not to look old.
It’s all very well intoning ‘use it or lose it’, but this doesn’t allow for the possibility that you may still lose it despite using it.
each time we see an older person, we need to imagine them as our future self, and, rather than recoil from their wrinkles or infirmities, applaud their resilience. We need to rehumanize older people, to attribute to them the same rich internal world, set of passions and network of complex human relationships that we assume exist in younger people and in ourselves.
At some point or other, age resistance becomes frankly futile –you’ll either die or start to look old –but the energy you use to accept the fact of ageing but refuse its stereotypes will serve you well for the rest of your life.
Although it might seem paradoxical, mourning is an essential part of ageing with gusto, because it helps you say goodbye to some features of life, freeing you to welcome in new ones.
We’ve learnt to assume that age will bring radical discontinuities to our lives, whether at 4 or 40. But it doesn’t. Perhaps this is one of the truths about ageing that we find hardest to learn.
Perhaps the greatest calumny committed against old people –and the one that most frightens the not-yet-old –is the belief that ageing causes us to leech vitality.
Cicero clocked this. People, said the Roman orator in De Senectute, his treatise on old age, ‘who have no resources in themselves for securing a good and happy life find every age burdensome.’
As Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, observes, for years most research into ageing was conducted in nursing homes, where bodies and brains are rarely stimulated, and this shaped beliefs about what it means to get old.
Research at the University of Cambridge challenges the idea of cognitive ageing as a monolithic process of universal, inexorable, progressive decline.
One was that they’d never retire –it would be tantamount to retiring from life. Another was that they were highly satisfied with their lives. This suggests that physical activity, work or an absorbing interest of some kind, as well as consciously maintaining social networks, both enrich the ageing process.
Lighter can mean not spreading oneself so thinly, monotasking rather than multitasking, learning to say no. Yet in order to do this we may have to let go of a lifetime’s obsessions and grievances.
It reminds us that, ultimately, pain can be modified by optimism and love. Why is this so hard to remember?
A 100-year-old woman, when she was interviewed on radio, was asked if she had any regrets. ‘If I’d known I’d live to be 100’, she replied, ‘I’d have taken up the violin at 40. By now I could have been playing for 60 years!’
It’s not just older people who are scared of ‘getting left behind’ –all of us are having to learn to live with long-term precariousness; we’re all only as good as our last project.
This line of thought pits Us against Them and sees public policy as a zero-sum game: whatever They get leaves less for Us.
Interestingly, too, the countries that have the fewest inequalities between generations also have the fewest inequalities within them.
We’ve age-cleansed our society. Under the banner of welfare we’ve corralled old people into day-care centres and homes; removed them from families, schools, universities, workplaces, general-hospital wards and sports centres, creating age ghettoes. It might soon be perfectly possible to go through life without meeting an old person until you become one. No wonder the prospect of ageing is terrifying.
Indeed young people’s lack of contact with old people not only encourages them to believe that they’ll never get old, but also to treat old people as if they’d never been young.
Age segregation denies the fact that interests and preoccupations cross the ages: you can love reggae or oppose the renewal of Trident whatever your age –instead of age dividing us, passions can unite us.
Homeshare programmes around the world introduce older homeowners who’d value company and assistance to younger people threatened with homelessness. In the USA ‘cyber-grandparents’, aged 60 to 105, are supplied by the Elder Wisdom Circle to provide anonymous advice to people in their twenties and thirties.
A skincare company which surveyed a large number of them found that they become anxious about ‘losing their looks’ at around 28.
Clive always thought his own lines and greying hair made him look ‘distinguished’, but he’s noticed a growing number of his colleagues of the same age resorting to the chemical and surgical procedures they’d always dismissed as women’s territory.
And will the sexual older man ever lose the prefix ‘dirty’? The arrival of Viagra has only reinforced this description, confirming them as unreconstructed priapics and libertines. Though what it really demonstrates is precisely the opposite: that male sexuality can be a fragile thing.
It’s easy to understand why we feel flattered when told that we don’t look our age. But basking in compliments like these brings only short-term relief. In the long term they’re dangerous: they only allow us to defer our discomfort until the time when we do look our age.
The classicist Mary Beard, whenever she appears on television, has her appearance savaged on social media by trolls. Retorts Beard, ‘Grey is my hair colour. I really can’t see why I should change it. There clearly is a view of female normative behaviour but more women of 58 do look like me than like Victoria Beckham.’
Whenever grievances about the invisibility of older women are voiced, paradoxically they reveal how older women are becoming culturally more prominent. They’re speaking out because they aren’t prepared to withdraw from public life and debate purely on grounds of their age and gender.
When someone asked the German Princess Palatine in the eighteenth century at what age sexual desire disappeared, she replied, ‘How should I know? I’m only 80.’
Some are resourceful. Jane Juska put an ad in the New York Review of Books that read ‘Before I turn 67, next March, I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works fine.’
There is no template for ageing, or ageing well. The best way is one’s own way.
The first British Older Women’s Cohousing project, set to open in 2015, is a creative new way of maintaining independence while also combating isolation: its first residents, currently aged between 50 and 84, will own or rent their own flat but also have communal areas and will look out for each other.
As with history, so with gender: the more we’re able to understand how ageist assumptions shape our thoughts and behaviour, the less hold they’ll have over us. If you recognize, for example, how far women are judged by their appearance and men by their vigour, you’ll find it easier, as you leave your teens and twenties, to situate and challenge those stereotypes of the woman who’s losing her looks and the man whose vigour is ebbing away.
Since 1951 no one in the USA has died of old age. This was the year old age was deleted as a cause of death from death certificates; from then on you could only die of a disease.
Severing any link between ageing and death is another manifestation of our denial of death –death has to go underground, and not just literally.
Along with gerontophobia, our culture suffers from thanatophobia, an overwhelming fear of death.
more people now die in hospital or a nursing home than in their own home. Such is the taboo against death that children are often excluded from the funerals of relatives on the grounds that ‘it will upset them’, though they often later express regret that they had no opportunity to say goodbye.
In highly individualistic cultures death seems like a personal affront, a narcissistic wound, an attack on our individual subjectivity.
researchers have found, for example, that nursing staff with high levels of ‘death anxiety’ have significantly more negative attitudes to older people.
Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life.
At ‘Death Cafe’ events, people come together in a relaxed and safe setting to discuss death, drink tea and eat cake.
Maggie Kuhn used to encourage people to compile a life line or life review from their birth. When she urged them to also put in the year they thought they’d die, people always gasped. She maintained, though, that this helped raise their consciousness of their own death. For once you start to really take on board the fact that you’re going to die, old age becomes a lot less terrifying: it means you’re not dead yet.
‘Symmetry’, a TV ad for Marie Curie Cancer Care, attracted almost universal praise when it was launched in 2013.
People who live their earlier lives as if they’re never going to age often find retirement and the loss of a professional identity particularly traumatic: they’ve failed to cultivate those qualities that can endure, and without the containing structure imposed by work, even if they complained about it at the time, they’re at a loss.
In addition, researchers at King’s College London have found that twenty-two molecules already present when we’re born are linked to our health in old age.
In a slim cowritten volume called Aging: The Fulfillment of Life, first
Germany is now ‘exporting’ –some call it ‘deporting’ –thousands of old and sick Germans to retirement and rehabilitation centres in Eastern Europe and Asia because it’s cheaper. This is ‘disowning’ old people literally.
Powerlessness is perhaps the hardest state for us to tolerate today.
We say that we cannot be human all by ourselves; we need each other.
Psychotherapist Marie de Hennezel has observed many older people entrusting their body to other people’s care with grace, and without embarrassment or humiliation. It’s as if they help their carers look after them.
Yet at every stage of life some attachments need to be given up for others to develop, in order to move forward.
Mourning creates a space in which a sense of gratitude can develop –gratitude for what remains, or for what unfolds in place of what’s been lost.
Maggie Kuhn saw older people in precisely the opposite way. In the vanguard of social change, they’re society’s futurists –testing out new instruments, technologies, ideas and styles of living.
The ones who fare best not only care about what they leave behind for the next generation, but are also able to keep learning from people both older and younger than themselves.
Those who urge us to fight ageing are, in effect, inviting us to stop growing and developing. In so doing, they’re depriving us of the opportunity to carry out and successfully complete the task of being alive and human.
Gina is also coming to realize that growing older is a privilege which, instead of fearing, she might do better to hope for. (Hope I age –what a slogan this would be!) In short, she has started to understand that ageing is a process, and not a crisis.
Or the right for old people to remain embodied: as much as younger people, older people need to touch and be touched; to taste good food; to stretch, move and dance.
Acknowledging death graces us with a sense of perspective: it reminds us that we have only a finite number of breaths; it makes us ask ourselves ‘How will I feel when I get to the end of my life having done/ without having done this?’
For the novelist Edith Wharton it was being ‘unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.’ The cellist Pablo Casals, when asked by one of his pupils why, at the age of 91, he continued to practise, replied, ‘Because I am making progress.’