Wednesday, 23 October 2013

REFLECTING ON OLD AGE

“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which mean never losing your enthusiasm.” - Aldous Huxley
 

Last night I looked at a photograph of myself that a colleague took while we were at a work lunch yesterday. It surprised me greatly as I saw a seriously middle aged man looking out at me. It was a shock as I hardly recognised myself, looking definitely much older than I feel, even on “bad” days. A world-weariness and disappointment in my face was captured by that particular shot, and my eyes certainly looked extinguished with my expression quite flat. I was never photogenic and there are few photographs of me as I don’t particularly like being in front of the camera as a subject – I’d rather be behind it, taking the photos. This particular photograph drove home several points decidedly, but once I thought about it I shrugged and dealt with it decisively.
 

It is a sign of growing older and hopefully wiser, this acknowledgement of the marks of time on one’s body. Being able to look in the mirror or at a photo and reconcile oneself with the ravages of time, is a sign of maturity – not of body, but of mind. We live in an ageist culture whether we like it or not and the older we get the more marginalised we expect to become, the more invisible. It is not surprising that most of us tend to hold on to our youthful image as long as possible. The huge number of older people undergoing plastic surgery, having personal training, subscribing to dieting and ageing-reversal regimens is compelling evidence of this.
 

In the past, in more traditional cultures old age was seen to be a privileged state and the aged held a place of special regard and eminence within the family, society and ruling classes. As the nuclear family became widespread in an increasingly urbanised world, as consumerism and globalisation spread their way across most of the world, a youth-oriented culture became the dominant moving force in society. As the aged got displaced out of the extended family model and become increasingly confined to the “grey zone” of the nursing home, it is not surprising that one wants to extend middle age, mimic a certain degree of youthfulness on one’s appearance, speech and ethos, and thus postpone one’s banishment to the grey zone as far into the future as possible.
 

When I was living in Holland several years ago, I was amazed that one of the first questions I was consistently asked by everyone was: “How old are you?”. As soon as I answered I could see the mental cogs of my interlocutors turning – there was a reckoning of age versus appearance, social status and achievements and even more importantly the calculation of my “use by date”, beyond which I would no longer matter. Certainly I was surprised by the very youthful appearance of Amsterdam – which was a city of young, beautiful and happy people. It intrigued me enough to ask of the locals: “But where are all of the old people?” The answer, half in jest and half in all seriousness was: “We export them to Belgium!” This turned out to be true to a certain extent, as Belgium was close enough to be easily accessible, but more importantly, its nursing home rates were more affordable.
 

Looking critically at this ageism that exists within our society, one has to consider the next steps. Already there is increasing debate about euthanasia. Having the right to take away one’s own life in cases where life has become insupportable due to serious disease or insufferable pain is gaining wide acceptance. Where do we draw the line? Taking away one’s life because one no longer fits into the social ideal of “young, beautiful and happy”? Shades of “Soylent Green”? It is a vexed question, but one that greatly conveniences the young – but obviously not as attractive to the aged.
 

As I come to terms with own increasing age, get acquainted with the idea of removing myself from the workforce, make plans for my retirement and beginning a new chapter of my life, I have to develop a more philosophical approach to life, the universe and everything… Old age brings with it a greater degree of introspection and one has to be comfortable with one’s thoughts, first and foremost. One has to develop new friendships, the most important such new friend being the idea of one’s demise. When death comes, one must be ready and welcoming, as if one is finally seeing a dear old pen pal that one has corresponded with for many years.
 

Confucius remarks of old age: “Old age, believe me, is a good and pleasant thing. It is true you are gently shouldered off the stage, but then you are given such a comfortable front stall as spectator…” This is certainly telling it like it is, but I intend to be an active spectator, a caustic critic of the performance, a viewer who enjoys (or not) the spectacle and is busy having a good time with my fellow spectators while we watch – booing, heckling, applauding and cheering included.

4 comments:

  1. Looking into a mirror certainly doesn't warn us of the ageing process since we still see the same face that we saw at 20 or 30. But if we hold up two photos 30 years apart, we will immediately see two different people or the same person at a vastly different stage in life.

    You said it exactly right, for this entire Baby Boomer generation: "As I come to terms with own increasing age, get acquainted with the idea of removing myself from the workforce, make plans for my retirement and beginning a new chapter of my life, I have to develop a more philosophical approach to life, the universe and everything… Old age brings with it a greater degree of introspection". Joe and I have to make decisions about retirement, financing our older age, telling historical tales to the grandchildren, overseas travel for as long as good health continues etc.

    But the very worst is watching my parents (91 and 89) lose their physical or mental skills.

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  2. You have certainly touched a nerve with me in this post. I can certainly identify with what you so eloquently put forward. Simply saying "you're only as young as you feel" never resonated with me, especially if health problems develop with advancing age. My mind and spirit may be young but my ageing body betrays them...

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  3. So glad you came to comment on my post ... the real reward was in reading yours! At seventy-two, retired, attempting to keep my blood sugar and blood pressure in check ... I don't have time to think about how I 'look' .... I look as I am supposed to at my age. I keep active with volunteer work, friends, family ... relish each day I am a participant in life.

    I live in Oregon where assisted suicide is legal, I don't know how I would approach it if I had a terminal disease, was in horrific pain. A dear friend of mine (age 48) recently passed away .. ovarian cancer. Hospice was incredibly helpful during the last few months of her life .... thanks for writing this Nicholas.

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  4. Enjoy the coming of old age. It brings with it many rewards and you are the sort of person to reap them judging by what you write in this blog!

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