What is it about ageing that makes us dread it so much? Is it really just about the loss of looks and visible signs of ageing? The cosmetic industry certainly makes a great deal of money from tapping into those fears, and I’ve often wondered whether the advertising industry has created a fear of ageing by promoting perfect images of youth and beauty that we must all aspire to. That view is probably too simplistic, especially as literature from pre-advertising industry eras has many references to the ‘curse’ of aging, however I do wonder how much of a contribution that an overall general negative attitude towards older people makes to those feelings of dread.
Nevertheless we do seem to worship at the altar of youth whilst consigning many over the age of 40 to the scrapheap, especially women. A female newsreader from my own youth lost her job to a younger woman and while it was reported in the newspapers, no one really batted an eyelid. She was, besides other things, extremely good at her job, yet despite all of her attributes she was cast aside whilst far older and less presentable male newsreaders were allowed to continue.
The film industry is a classic example of selecting youth over age and experience, and again, women are mostly affected. Yes I know there are some exceptions but not nearly enough. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve seen a mother depicted with offspring who look more like her younger siblings, and a father with a child that looks much more like a grandchild.
With levels of toxicity rising in our present political climate I’m witnessing a great deal of resentment towards older people.
Although aging is weighted in favour of men, (there’s a saying, ‘men age, women get old’), women can sometimes be amongst the worst offenders of age discrimination. I’ve most recently read of a report where a young female star of something or another took a photo of a naked older woman whose body reflected her advanced years and posted it for all to see on social media. The older woman had no idea she’d been photographed; just how cruel and nasty can anyone be to do such a thing, and what’s to be gained from it, and what does it say about our attitude to those of an advanced age?
With levels of toxicity rising in our present political climate I’m witnessing a great deal of resentment towards older people, comments I’ve read include, “they cost the NHS the largest proportion of its budget”, as a healthcare professional I can categorically state this to be entirely erroneous; “why should taxpayers pay for their pensions”, without realising that pensioners have already paid their dues through forty+ years of working and funded the health and education system used by the young before they were old enough to work themselves; “why don’t older people do something”, many are still working either through choice or necessity, many get involved in charitable work, and many are just too ill or infirm to ‘do’ anything. It’s also worth noting that some pensioners are still paying tax and there’s also an army of older people/pensioners looking after grandchildren while their own offspring are out at work thereby contributing to the economy by proxy. A first for me was seeing a group of retired ladies replete with grandchildren in pushchairs meeting up for a coffee; that was always primarily the prerogative of ‘young mothers’. During school holidays one can witness an army of retired people out and about with grandchildren in tow.
What strikes me about the aforementioned comments is the lack of foresight. It’s as though the author’s haven’t considered the fact that they too will one day be ‘old’, the saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ is never more salient. Above all though, it’s the inherent lack of knowledge and understanding of some of the problems many people will have to face once they reach a certain age that puzzles me, don’t any of them have grandparents? I think it would be fair to say though that had I not worked with the elderly in my capacity as a healthcare professional I may not have any more insight into the problems of aging than they have. Indeed as a young person I hardly gave aging a thought, I barely registered the presence of people in their retirement years; they were just ‘there’. I couldn’t wait to grow up and be an adult and it wasn’t until I reached 30 that I really felt I’d joined the world of grown-ups despite being a mother of two children. Yet in what seems the blink of an eye, I am no longer merely an adult. From the age of 50 onwards, women in particular, begin the process of invisibility. Now in my 60s, I am classed as an ‘older person’. Not an adult, person or woman, but an older woman, by the time I reach 70+ I will be classed only as an ‘old woman’ or worse still, be in the category of ‘the elderly’. A term I have come to hate despite using it myself.
Best of all though is the gradual realisation that you don’t have to be all things to all people and that it’s okay to just be yourself.
Which brings me to a personal bugbear, being stereotyped; when a young person states a lack of knowledge in a particular area of technology it is usually met with understanding and an explanation? If I express the same lack of knowledge it is met with resigned amusement and derision, especially annoying when I have been using computers and a variety of other technological equipment (in my line of work) for many years. In youth we just don’t seem to consider that many from the older generation have fought in a war, had careers whilst bringing up a family, travelled, read widely, devised computer programmes, invented and designed many of the things we take for granted, written books/poetry, painted pictures, acted on stage and screen, influenced fashion and politics, and contributed to advances in the world of science. I could go on and on yet they’re often treated almost as children, talking down to them and calling them ‘dear’ or ‘love’, arghhh! However having witnessed a certain attitude to aging by some members of the older generation I shouldn’t really be too surprised. Hearing “I’m too old to be bothering with that” makes me cringe especially when at the age of 44, I embarked on a new career and at the age of 53, embarked on another; there are also those, even older, who have completed degree courses and run in marathons.
I am no more a stranger to fears, pre-conceived ideas and assumptions than anyone else but I can say aging is not nearly as bad as I imagined it would be. Retirement has brought me a freedom never before experienced; I am in complete control of my life. The stress of work and getting up in the dark, cold mornings to catch the early train, and not getting home until heaven knows what time, is but a dim memory. No one to dictate what I can or cannot do is a luxury I hadn’t previously considered and its years since I’ve had to fend off the unwanted advances of men but it’s still a great relief that I don’t have to contend with that anymore. Even better, no more dreadful PMS and heavy painful periods, Oh Joy! Best of all though is the gradual realisation that you don’t have to be all things to all people and that it’s okay to just be yourself. The need for approval doesn’t necessarily disappear altogether but the ability to shrug the lack of it off is so much stronger.
I now consider the years I’ve dreaded getting old a waste of time as I find I’m happier and more content than I’ve ever been in my life. As for visible signs of aging, I’ve earned every wrinkle and sag I own, it’s not my problem if others find them unattractive. If some woman took an uncompromising photo of me I’m still fit and healthy enough to hunt her down and smack her in the chops and technologically able enough to take a photo of her writhing in agony and upload it onto the internet. Now wouldn’t that be a blessing in disguise?