You CAN learn to love growing old! A one-way ticket to elasticated waistbands and a rocking chair? Poppycock! A joyously life-enhancing book shatters the myths about ageing
Yes, it comes to all of us in the end — that icy, crushing moment when you suddenly feel Old. Your birth-date, once just numbers in a passport, turns into a taunt, a memento mori, whispering proof that you’re over the hill and on a one-way track to elasticated waistbands and the rocking chair.
Life as you know it, as you want it to be, is over. You start worrying about what is age-appropriate. Is this outfit too young for me? This haircut, this job, this lover, this band, this sport?
The trigger might be a milestone birthday, an illness or an injury, a romantic snub or a missed promotion at work. It might be the death of a loved one.
Look past the stereotypes and you realise that what lies ahead is not a miserable descent into decrepitude. Far from it
Look a little closer, though, and you find a silver lining. Life expectancy has soared. Better nutrition, health, technology, sanitation and medical care, along with less smoking and rising incomes, are helping us live much longer.
The 20th century unleashed a longevity revolution which, by any yardstick, is a huge leap forward, a monument to human ingenuity, a cause for celebration — and yet often it doesn’t feel that way. Why not?
Mainly because our attitude to ageing has failed to keep pace with the demographic bounty spreading out before us. Rather than crack open the champagne to toast all those extra years of life, we more often double down on the idea that growing older is a Bad Thing.
When was the last time you met someone looking forward to hitting 40 or 50, let alone 60 or 70?
The very idea of growing older usually evokes fear, angst, scorn, even revulsion. We cleave to the view that ageing is a curse, that after a certain point each birthday makes us less attractive, less productive, less happy, less energetic, less creative, less healthy, less open-minded, less lovable, less strong, less visible, less useful — less ourselves.
We undermine compliments by tacking on the words ‘for your age’. We routinely fall into the ‘still’ syndrome: we say he’s still working, they’re still having sex, she’s still sharp as a tack — as if engaging with the world after a certain age were a minor miracle.
Actor and director Clint Eastwood poses with his Oscar statues at the 77th annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, February 27, 2005. Eastwood won the Academy Award for best director and best picture for his work on ‘Million Dollar Baby’ at age 74
Recoiling from ageing is not new.
More than 4,500 years ago, an elderly Egyptian scribe bemoaned: ‘Feebleness has arrived. The eyes are weak, the ears are deaf, the strength is disappearing. All taste is gone. What old age does to men is evil in every respect.’
In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson detected a bias against ageing brains. ‘There is a wicked inclination in most people to suppose an old man decayed in his intellects,’ he wrote.
‘If a young or middle-aged man does not remember where he laid his hat, it is nothing; but if the same inattention is discovered in an old man, people will shrug their shoulders and say: ‘His memory is going.’ ‘
Has anything changed since then?
Twentysomethings are turning to Botox and hair implants before job interviews and even teenagers use cosmetic procedures to ‘freshen up’ their appearance.
When U.S. academics searched Facebook for groups set up to discuss older people, they found 84, virtually all of them trading in unflattering stereotypes. More than a third advocated banning older people from driving and shopping, and one user proposed that ‘everyone over the age of 69 should immediately face a firing squad’.
Elder-bashing is now the last form of discrimination that dare speak its name.
Since the Brexit referendum, some commentators have suggested stripping the over-65s of the vote.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once told an audience that ‘young people are just smarter’
In a similar vein, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once told an audience that ‘young people are just smarter’.
I admit to being part of the same culture.
In my 20s, my default setting when contemplating anyone over 35 was a brew of disdain and horror. I’ve sung the Who’s ‘My Generation’ and taken cruel pleasure in belting out the line, ‘Hope I die before I get old.’
Now that I’m 50, I’m in full denial mode, deploying every trick in the book to conceal from the world — and myself — my own ageing.
Year of birth withheld on Facebook? Check. Avoiding wearing reading glasses? Check. Keeping my hair short to mask the grey? Check. The other day, I was unable to read the small print on a light-bulb in a hardware shop. After much squinting, I sought help. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask the young people around me, and so asked an older woman with glasses perched on her nose.
Such dodges seem harmless, but the truth is they’re tiny acts of betrayal and denial, the unscripted sighs of surrender that endorse the cultural diktat that ageing is a shameful game of loss and decline.
Of course, there really are downsides to growing older.
No matter how much kale you eat or how many hours of Pilates you do, your body will gradually work less well over time and your brain will lose some zip.
You are also more likely to see people you love fall ill or die.
Fear of death is also probably more acute today than ever.
Studies show that a negative attitude to ageing causes older people to perform worse in memory, hearing and balance tests and to walk more slowly
Not only has secularisation taken away the solace of the afterlife, but we have messed up the whole business of dying, medicalising and institutionalising it. None of us knows for sure how our own final act will unfold — and the temptation is to imagine the worst, especially now that modern medicine has devised a million ways to keep us alive long after we might prefer to be 6ft under.
When we approach the end, the default setting is to do everything possible — whatever the cost in money, pain, distress and loss of dignity — to keep us alive. This can turn our final days, weeks or even months into a hell worthy of Hieronymus Bosch, leaving us to die hooked up to machines and surrounded by medical staff.
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Yet the biggest downside of all may be dealing with our toxic view of ageing itself. Not only does this condemn us to spend much of our lives feeling rotten about how old we are getting, it also narrows horizons.
Just imagine all the roads untravelled, the potential untapped, all the life unlived, thanks to that little voice inside our heads whispering: ‘You’re too old for this.’
A grim view of later life can even act as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Studies show that a negative attitude to ageing causes older people to perform worse in memory, hearing and balance tests and to walk more slowly.
To make the most of our longer lives we have to break out of this mode of thinking. We need to be bold about old age — to learn both how to age better and how to feel better about ageing.
Ageing is the most natural thing in the world: 12 months from now we will all be one year older. What we need to do is understand and embrace it as a blessing rather than a burden
Look past the stereotypes and you realise that what lies ahead is not a miserable descent into decrepitude. Far from it.
My own parents, aged 77 and 83, are having the time of their lives — travelling, cooking, exercising, socialising, studying, working when it takes their fancy.
The idea that older people are a burden with nothing to contribute is clearly absurd.
Michelangelo finished painting the frescoes in the Pauline chapel at the age of 74; Verdi premiered his finest comic opera, Falstaff, at 79; architect Frank Lloyd Wright was 91 when he finished the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Kant and Cato produced their finest philosophical work in old age. So, who’s smarter now, Zuckerberg?
Today, the public sphere is jammed with people doing extraordinary things on the ‘wrong’ side of 50.
Clint Eastwood won his first Oscar for best director at 62 and his second at 74. Jane Goodall travels the world in her 80s to deliver sold-out lectures on her work with chimpanzees in Tanzania.
In their 90s, the Queen attends hundreds of events a year and David Attenborough makes award-winning nature documentaries and appears as a passionate platform speaker at climate change conferences.
Sir David Attenborough joins Her Majesty the Queen in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. In their 90s, the Queen attends hundreds of events a year and David Attenborough makes award-winning nature documentaries
We are now pushing the limits of what all of us can achieve long after the first flush of youth. Everywhere, people are embracing ageing as a privilege rather than a punishment.
They are ageing better and more boldly than ever before. They are going back to school in their 50s; starting families in their 60s; running marathons in their 70s; falling in love in their 90s.
By doing so, they are raising expectations of what we can do with our longer lives as well as demolishing the shibboleth that an ageing population must be a burden.
As a result, chronological age is losing its power to define and constrain us.
These days, what matters is not when you were born so much as the choices you make — the books you read, the television you watch, the music you listen to, the food you eat, the people you love, the politics you espouse and the work you do.
This shift dovetails with the wider cultural move towards diversity and personal freedom.
We now express sexual orientation and gender identity in ways that would have been unthinkable not so long ago. Age can be the next frontier.
The world today is a much better place for an over-50 than it was even 20 years ago. New techniques for restoring hearing and sight are coming on stream and neuroscientists are figuring out how to harness the brain to move prosthetic limbs and operate computers.
Today, the public sphere is jammed with people doing extraordinary things on the ‘wrong’ side of 50. Pictured: Great grandmother of nine Mary Armstrong, 90, with her tandem instructor Clem Quinn, making a 12,000ft jump for the Brooke charity which cares for working animals in the worlds poorest countries
Designers are racing to build wearable gadgets that will give older bodies a functional boost and technology is opening up new ways to take a full part in the world until the very end of life.
According to scientists, the recipe for a happier old age is pretty straightforward.
Stay physically active. Eat a healthy diet. Drink alcohol in moderation and don’t smoke. Form strong social bonds. Have a purpose in life that gets you up in the morning. Be less materialistic. Laugh a lot.
Of all the items on that list, exercise seems the closest to a magic bullet.
It’s vital, too, to keep on learning. Yes, the brain is at its most plastic in the first two decades of life, which is why children soak up knowledge like sponges. But that does not mean we fall off a learning cliff at the age of 20 — or 40, 60 or 80.
Quite the opposite. The chief obstacle to learning in later life is not the ageing brain. It is the ageist stereotypes that erode our confidence and put us off trying new things.
Marie Curie learned to swim in her 50s, Tolstoy to ride a bicycle in his 60s. Jens Skou, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, mastered computer programming in his 70s. When asked by a pupil at the age of 91 why he kept on practising, cellist Pablo Casals replied: ‘Because I am making progress.’
Of course, eventually our bodies will wear out. Ageing is the most natural thing in the world: 12 months from now we will all be one year older.
The chief obstacle to learning in later life is not the ageing brain. It is the ageist stereotypes that erode our confidence and put us off trying new things – just look at Marie Curie, who learned to swim in her 50s
What we need to do is understand and embrace it as a blessing rather than a burden. We must learn to accept frailty and vulnerability as a part of life rather than as a mark of failure.
Forget the novelist Philip Roth’s chilling verdict that: ‘Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.’ It needn’t be so. A positive attitude helps.
Studies show that those with a more upbeat image of growing older tend to perform better in memory and motor control tests. They can walk faster and stand a better chance of recovering from disability. They also live an average of seven and a half years longer.
We can’t shut our eyes to the undoubted hardships that can be involved in ageing.
The loneliest age group in the UK is the over-75s, two-fifths of whom tell researchers that television is their main form of company.
Loneliness is miserable, taking the same toll on our health as being obese or smoking. But it is not an inevitable corollary of growing older. Loneliness is a scourge in every generation. The second loneliest age group in the UK is 21-35.
And while dementia is more likely to strike in later life, it is not an inevitable part of it. Around 17 per cent of people over the age of 80 have it, but that means the other 83 per cent do not.
In summary, ageing is not nearly as bad as we fear. Life can become richer, deeper, happier, often confounding our own worst expectations.
I know that ageing is hard to love unconditionally. It takes things away from us, especially towards the end of life. Like anyone else, I still worry about what the passage of time will do to my health, my finances, my looks, my loved ones. Nor do I want my life to end.
Yet I no longer recoil from it. Such worries feel less daunting now because I know that, with a little luck and the right attitude, lots of good stuff awaits me in the coming years.
A golden age of ageing is dawning, and I am looking forward to it.
Bolder: Making The Most Of Our Longer Lives by Carl Honore is published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99. To order a copy, call 0844 571 0640 or go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books. P&P is free on orders over £15.
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