On old age…

I quote:

‘As we age we move from the participator to the observer. Where we were once the busy decision makers who made things happen we become the onlooker who is invited to join occasions that we used to initiate, my Dad used to say to people who didn’t know him and would patronise him: I am old I am not stupid.’

I don’t like any kind of labelling where individuals are concerned. It riles me. People do not become identical, (clones of each other) simply because they share commonality. Yet too often a human being is caught—as if framed in the narrow light attributed to a group — “Jews, foreigners, Muslim, labour supporters, disabled, the young generation…” the list is endless. Any individual can become the subject of generalisation. Those who concern me at present have been given the tag of elderly citizen or old people.

Sharing religious beliefs, cultural and philosophical outlook, identical physical or mental disabilities, belonging to similar social strata may evoke empathy towards one another in any designated group. It equates to walking in someone else’s shoes and is easier if the shoes are of the same brand, size and comfort. But it remains a complex feeling and will vary with one’s capacity for tolerance and willingness to understand the other’s plight. The quote shows that people tend to a lack towards old people and give advice or brazenly take over. It is also doubtful that all elderlies are able to show kind feelings towards their fellow’s sufferers.

A considerable number of people (more so in our western world) are frightened of death and old age evokes the inevitable end of life. It is scary for many of us to watch old people slow or painful walk and contemplate how every year is likely to equate to a further loss of mobility, decrease in cognitive function and memory. It forces us to acknowledge that life is finite. Intellectually we know this as a fact, but it is very different from being confronted by its reality.

There is an age, bless the little children, when one is eager to get old! Aged three a birthday equates celebration and they count on their fingers the number of ‘sleeps’ before the big day arrives.

From memory some of my clients dreaded reaching the thirty marks when the first wrinkle or blemishes on their skin was perceived as a disaster. For the fellows their concern were more in line with professional or material achievement, the car they could afford or the important matter of getting married which to them equated settling down and the loss of freedom. However far from I to generalise, some did and some didn’t.

The criterion of who is old is variable anyhow. I remember that if in my youth I looked upon forty years old as well past their prime. As I aged and time went by, sixty then seventy earned the label. Now that I have reached the mature age of ninety one I don’t know any more, although to be seventy is definitely young in my book and I still remember how alive I felt in my eighties. Similarly the status of those who were let say in their forties when I was fifty has shrank and now that they nudge eighty I look upon them as my peers.

The definition of ‘old’ has varied in recent years. The law used to decree that sixty for females and sixty five for males was the retiring age and in most cases these citizen were obliged to quit their occupation. Quite irrational in a way when even then the statistics showed that women lived longer than men.

If need be the retirees were entitled to a government pension. As the government’s budget tightens the age of the recipient of pension’s entitlement changes and will continue to alter each year. Not only aren’t people obliged to forego their occupation but they are encouraged and in some cases granted financial benefits if they continue to work. This may be fair enough if they are capable physically and mentally to hold their position

However while this is the position of the government of the day the prejudicial outlook is very much alive in the business world and anyone approaching sixty and seeking a job may be passed over for a younger candidate.

I wrote a paper on old age in 1977 and was angry with the elderly themselves whom I considered equally to blame for generalisation (it is long ago) I believe then that they used ageism as an excuse to limit their own life’s experiences. It could be that all they wished for was a well-deserved quiet life but it felt to me as if they hid behind a label and literally shrank their lives. This was the period when people were deemed ‘too old’ for work. I remember vividly one University lecturer forced to retire and whose answer was ‘But the job is what I love.’ when friends said ‘now you can do what you want.’

Times have changed and will continue to do so as long as our planet remains viable. What infuriated me in 1977 was that when eighty years old achieved notoriety they weren’t considered ‘old’. They were described as interesting, capable, innovative, and their country was proud of them. In that line of thoughts let us reflect and bring to mind the name of so many extraordinary elderly individuals whose life’s achievements, unfailing curiosity make us proud to belong to the human race and brings us hope.

Yet now in our twenty first century the outlook for a number of old people remains very restricted, either because of their own specific image of ageism, their culture or poverty. When people now speak of the old people it is often with mixed feelings. There is the government on one hand and the ordinary population on the other. From a government view point an ageing population equates to problems, foreboding balancing the numbers of elderlies versus the younger ones whose tax will subside government‘s costs as money is needed for pensions and health care.

I don’t think that ageing bothered me. Up until now! When I enquire as how my friends’ old mother and father are, it cheers me up to learn that they continue to live independently.

I am interested in the opinion of individuals. What are they thinking when they reach a mature age of let say fifty plus. The chorus of clamouring voices is loud; a large group of people add their voices notwithstanding the elderlies themselves. The concept of old is well anchored in people’s mind and the image reflected by the label is not only of dark colours but unappealing.

My mother eighty three at the time didn’t want to mix with ‘these old people’ when we suggested that she joined a group of senior citizen and we all laughed recently when one eighty-two year old friend said seriously, ‘The old people are set in their way.’

She, herself is lively, attends a number of U3A classes, enjoys singing and reads widely. She uses a mobile phone and a computer. She believes her good health is due to her diet. Since divorcing some twenty years ago, not only has she become vegetarian but she never cooks and eats vegetables in their raw stage. Yet she comfortably generalised about a generation to which she belongs.

Set in your way brings to mind reducing one’s path to the well-trodden ones, lack of enthusiasm, narrow mindedness, and limited focus, reluctance to embrace new ways (let it be technology or social mores).

Loneliness may be the curse of getting very old as one faces the hurdles of going places in order to meet other folks. In suburbs where everyone is busy and comes home late, some elderlies have died and their absence from their own street’s landscape passed unnoticed.

Is it more difficult to age gracefully and honourably for those who had chosen not to have children? It will vary with circumstances and being reasonably affluent does help. Family ties, care and affection don’t necessarily go hand in hand particularly in our part of the Western world where( as a generalisation) individualism is prized and materialism reigns.

Illness physical or mental is a fact of life but not specific to seniority although it is likely that every year of usage will wear one’s joints, diminish one’s muscular strength, reduces one’s lungs or heart capacity and generally aggravates earlier symptoms of ill health and often but not always one may tire easily and more often. The longer one lives the more chances of disability albeit medical research and new surgical techniques available in the western world. I watched a documentary on the population of a Japanese island where eighty and ninety years old still toiled the soil, fished and worked at different tasks. They ate a diet based on sweet potatoes. Yesterday elderly Chinese men and women were moving graciously on the television screen in a kind of a dance which they enjoy thoroughly. They spoke about their zest for life.

Zest is the most important ingredient that one must look for when attempting to paint the portrait of those of us who have one foot in the grave. Without zest life becomes bland and the onlooker needs but one colour on its palette: that of grey.

Zest for life varies greatly from one individual to another. To put it simply it means enjoyment, the capacity to find pleasure in being alive. The opportunities are limitless and range from the banal to the sublime. It is given to everyone even to those whose mind has stopped ticking along the beat of a well-greased clock. The media bombards us in loud warnings, the dreaded Alzheimer disease or senile dementia is waiting to trap us at any time and in the future the number of sufferers will increase dramatically. Any loss of memory be it temporary brings waves of fear in those from sixty onwards; it signals danger, the loss of identity as well as shame for— what will others people say.

It is far from my intention to minimise the impact of the disease, but I believe that it may be more tragic, more painful, and more difficult for the carer and the onlooker. They see the sufferers as diminished; they grieve the loss of a loved one’s identity and they have to cope with the duality of a sick mind in a healthy body.

Once more let us be fair. Some whose memory has become a blank slate may have been conscious earlier on of their own progressive degeneration and experienced the deepest of grief. Is their degree of sadness different from someone younger diagnosed with a fatal disease? They too will mourn the loss of identity and know the anguish of dying.

I have gone far away from the pleasure that living still offers although one is old, decrepit and limited in experiences. Sitting in the sun sipping a cup of tea or coffee may well be satisfying to some and give enough meaning to their existence for them to wish to be kept alive. It all depends on one’s personality and habits. It wouldn’t be enough for me but I am not the other.

All this meandering brought me to reflect on the why and how physical appearance is so important to a number of middle aged and much older women , although it seems that the syndrome is ‘catchy’ and that more men than ever dye their hair and use Botox.

I refused to die my hair in my sixties although Jo, my hairdresser, cajoled me saying that I would look better with evenly dark hair. At the time I believed that appearances were not the ‘me’ I knew. I also stuck to the idea that to smooth the wrinkles of one’s skin, to tint one’s hair equated to being ashamed of the natural process of life and that it had to do with honesty and dignity. To disguise one’s age equated to falsehood.

I ask for forgiveness and this example shows that wisdom doesn’t come with ageing for it is only recently that I’ve wondered if what people were attempting to achieve was to reach equilibrium between their two selves, the outer and the inner. The inner may feel that it hasn’t change that much while the outer image clamours that it has. I know that I am still young in spirit and not that different the individual I was in my fifties. In fact I may be younger in spirit, more liberated; less concerned about what others think of the way I behave or dress.

To be continued….as time goes by!

Written by Dalia

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