Is it better to be boldly old, or perennially young at heart?

ageing ladies

Lately, I’ve been coming across phrases about ageing that I’m finding bothersome. For example, there is a birthday card that promises “You’re not getting OLDER, you’re getting WISER.

And not so long ago there was a public health forum on ageing, chaired by a “Senior Old Age Psychiatrist”, and whose headlined subject was “I’m OLDER, but not OLD”.

A bit before that, in the now sadly defunct Yours (a magazine for older women), Brigitte Bardot was quoted as saying “It is sad to grow old but nice to ripen.”

And then there is the label on a t-shirt that I bought, in which the manufacturer’s stated aim is one of “setting a new standard in fashion for 60+ women who feel 40 at heart.”

I’m guessing there would be two sets of reactions to the tenor of these statements. One would be to nod enthusiastically in agreement. And the other would be to feel completely exasperated and irritated by them. And while I like to think of myself as very even-handed, live and let live, and laissez faire, if I’m being honest I would have to place myself fairly and squarely in the latter group.

I do have a very definite point of view about the word “old” when it comes to ageing, and that is that it is a perfectly acceptable and realistic way of summing up a stage of life. It’s as useful, in its way, as saying that someone is young, or middle-aged. And, in fact, it makes no sense whatsoever to then not to have a word to describe the next stage. Equally, it makes no sense to stigmatise the word for a stage that is – in fact – like any other, with its positives and negatives, its ups and downs, the changes that it might bring, and its benefits as well as its disadvantages.

And at 76 years of age, I can write this with the conviction of personal experience as well as a lot of research about what it’s like to be old, and how to enjoy its benefits while managing some down sides. And, most of all, about accepting that it is simply another phase of life that we shade into on life’s journey, if we’re lucky enough to live this long. And not shrinking from calling it what it is.

In tune with that, the way that I see it is that it’s now time to put a positive spin on the word “old”.

On a similar theme, the fictional character Marie Sharp (in a 2006 novel by Virginia Ironside, No! I Don’t Want to Join a Bookclub), made an interesting point about the confronting aspect of the word “old”:

Is there actually something wrong these days with the word “old”? I was in Waterstones today and saw a book which was a compilation of quotes from people over sixty, with the unbelievable title “Late Youth”. What are all these euphemisms? I’ve even heard people talk of the “autumn of life”. I’m starting to think that “old” is becoming a dirty word, like “niggers” or “Mongols”. While I quite understand why we should avoid using those particular words, not using the word “old” seems as coy and ludicrous as Victorians putting skirts on their piano legs because they felt so uncomfortable at the sight of them.

And it should be noted that Late Youth is an actual anthology, edited by Susanna Johnston in 2005 and “celebrating the joys of being over 50.”

From the perception of her own life slipping away, terminally ill 31-year-old actor Belinda Emmett would definitely have agreed with Maria. Emmett died in 2006, just 10 months after being quoted in a 2005 article in the Woman’s Day, as saying:

There is sometimes a sense of frustration………when people say things such as, “I’m getting so old, I’m so old”, when I think that would be great. I just want to be able to say I’m old. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s those things people take for granted that I won’t ever take for granted again.

And her sentiments were echoed – in a philosophical vein – from a cancer survivor’s point of view, by 52-two year old yoga teacher, Eileen Hall, in 2008, in The Sun Herald’s Sunday Life:

In our culture, there is such a fear of getting older, and when it comes to having cosmetic surgery, I think that’s the reason people choose to do it. But what’s wrong with getting old? I think there is a wisdom and a joyfulness about ageing. If you stand well, if you have a certain posture, a sense of self-confidence, an identity that you’re happy with, age is something you’re not concerned with.

But these things come from within and when someone has a low self-worth, they will often seek to change it externally, not internally. Instead, you have to find out what’s wrong in your mindset and if you can do that, you would be amazed at the shift in your outward appearance. There is a glow, a tallness, a sense of self.

I’ve certainly become aware of my ageing in the past five years……but I’m not troubled by it because I realise that the body ages and that’s what it’s designed to do. But I believe I also have some control of that through diet, lifestyle, meditation and exercise…..

I was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago….and made a full recovery. It brings back a sense of what really matters now, what’s important in life. Now I just feel so grateful for every day. My health is good and I am doing what I love – how could I not be joyful with that?

And the issue of mortality is touched on in a 2014 article in The Sydney Morning Herald by grey-haired 50something coaching psychologist Patrea O’Donoghue. She advocated for everyone “to speak more openly about death and ageing, rather than to pretend it’s not going on.” She suggested that a fear of signs of ageing, such as grey hair, could stem from “denial, conformity, or an active non-acceptance of what is a very natural part of life.” And she speculated that “perhaps people are frightened of their own mortality. Yet all of us are on a one-way journey to (the grave). …. [And] if we acknowledged the entire human experience rather than focus on the youthful and gorgeous, we won’t feel as bad when we find our first grey hair and wrinkles. In fact, we may even come to love and embrace grey hair as a sign of mature experience. I’ve earned it and I’ll wear it with pride.”

It is certainly true for me and for the other old people whom I know, that we are very conscious of the fact that we have passed the half way mark towards our death, and that – therefore – we find ourselves in the strange situation of simultaneously experiencing opposing perceptions of time. There is, on the one hand, the luxury of more time to spend as we wish during the day, while on the other there is the undeniable fact of less time left before we shuffle off our mortal coil.

 The interesting thing is that the effect that this duality has on most of us is not one of fear or denial, but of making the most of the time that we have left. And of appreciating that.

Personally, I’m 100 per cent with what Ironside wrote in her 60s, in the aptly named British magazine The Oldie, in 2012. Writing in her own right, rather than a fictional character, it’s how she described her reaction to those women “heading into their 60s and still saying that “they all felt ‘young inside’.” She thought that it was “a terrible shame…[that] they were all yearning for some nostalgic past…. It was as if they’d lived for ages in one country and were all heading off to some incredibly interesting new one but, instead of getting out their telescopes and reading the guidebooks to this new place, the country of the old – learning the language and finding out about the laws – their eyes were so fixed on the land they’d left that they didn’t realise what fun they were going to have when they arrived at their new destination.”

Back in 2015, at the age of 32, Benjamin Law wrote something in The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend Magazine that I have continued to cherish as a light in the dark negativity surrounding the word old. As he put it then,“Sure, we’re all going to die. But getting ‘old’? That’s a privilege, baby.” In my opinion, he’s given the perfect answer to the question posed in the heading of this article. What do you think?

Anne Ring ©2018

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