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Why are we scared of growing old?

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Age brings intelligence, experience, wisdom and beauty. So why are we so scared of it?

Britain is no country for old men. Or old women for that matter. If we think we’re taciturn and uptight about sex, try talking to us about age. Unfortunately, shoving our heads in the sand about the fact that we, our friends, our family and society at large are going to get old isn’t going to work in the long-term. This year it was forecast that a third of all babies born in the past year are expected to reach 100. A recent review from the Workplace Retirement Income Commission warned that millions of people face a “bleak old age” thanks to cracks in the private sector pension provision. And last year, the Health Service Ombudsman raised concerns that nearly a fifth of complaints received about the NHS related to care of the elderly, and a dossier containing stories about the alarmingly poor level of care elderly patients receive was published by campaigners. Add to that the diminishing number of role models – especially women – over a certain age, and you could be forgiven for thinking we live in a world where no-one gets old.

The trouble is that many of us find it impossible to relate to these worrying facts, unable to face the reality that every day we inch ever closer to our own dotage. An old age that we now believe starts at 59, according to a 2012 survey. It seems ‘the elderly’ are ‘them’, not ‘us’, to such an extent that advancing years provide a cloak of invisibility. You might offer an octogenarian a seat on the bus, or let them in front of you in a queue but how often do you engage in an actual conversation with a person you aren’t related to? It’s easy to forget that the man in his late 80s in Waitrose probably fought in World War II, or that the woman struggling to cross the road lived through an age when it was legal to fire a woman when she got married – and may well have campaigned against it. Our older generations experienced the majority of the most tumultuous century in human history and yet at best we infantilise, at worst outright ignore them. Pity instead of respect. A 1998 study showed that we use baby talk (higher voices and simpler words) when communicating with people we perceive as old. So why do we have such an extraordinary aversion to ageing?

Eternal Youth

One suggestion is that we aren’t forced to face up to our own ageing process because the elderly are deftly airbrushed out of our lives by an ageist media and a business culture in thrall to youth. A survey by the Department For Work And Pensions concluded that “agerelated stereotypes are rooted in British society” with one in seven people saying having a boss in their 70s is “completely unacceptable”. Whether this is because they are viewed as too old to cope in the workplace, or not in touch with modern business technology, it’s something people will have to learn to accept if current proposals to raise the UK retirement age to 70 are successful.

Although one in three people in society is now aged over 50, you wouldn’t know it by looking at how women are represented by the media. Take the landmark case of TV presenter Miriam O’Reilly, 55. After she was dropped from Countryfile in 2009, O’Reilly successfully sued the BBC for age discrimination. A BBC report commissioned following her case concluded there was “particular concern” about the lack of older women represented on television, with more than a third of women over 55 saying there were too few of them. In trying to combat this, the BBC were accused of tokenism by Carole Walker, a 52-year-old newsreader who believes her subsequent appointment was “nothing more than a PR stunt” after she was given just one presenting shift in three months. It’s not just the Beeb either – in 2008, Selina Scott, 60, won a payout and an apology from Five after apparently being replaced in favour of a younger presenter.

We're frightened of becoming weak and needy, but those who have a positive view of ageing stay healthier longer

And the representations of older women we do see in the media are problematic. “These fall into certain groupings,” says Dr Lorna Warren, senior lecturer in social policy at the University of Sheffield. “Firstly, there’s the likes of the impossibly beautiful Helen Mirren or photoshopped images in adverts… And then you get the figure-of-fun stereotypes – think of EastEnders’ Dot Cotton – they’re either sex-starved or asexual.” Even more damningly, ageism in the media is particularly rife when it bisects sexism. Older men are still afforded a high media profile; just look at George Clooney, Tom Jones (on The Voice), Pierce Brosnan and Jeremy Paxman. However much progress we’ve made in the 21st century, we still inhabit a ‘display culture’ which measures a woman’s worth by youth. So as women lose this, they become overlooked. A poll in 2011 revealed women feel they become ‘invisible’ at 46 and that their opinions no longer matter. A third admitted to being envious of how well their male partners were ageing.

Being bombarded with advertisements with images of dewy teenagers selling us everything from soft drinks to deodorant inevitably has a deep effect on our own psyche. As we grow older, the inexorable march of wrinkles and grey hairs reminds us of our own waning power.

Society has taught us not to see wisdom and experience but weakness and ugliness. So when the inevitable truth of ageing confronts us in the mirror – is this sagging? Is that drooping? – we don’t react well. Consequently the ultimate compliment has become, “Oh, you don’t look your age!” And it’s not just women in their 30s fishing for it – figures released by The Harley Medical Group last year revealed that there has been a 17% increase in women over the age of 65 using their clinics. Age has become a disease, to be cured and eradicated.

There is, of course, the inescapable fact that the elderly remind us of our own mortality as well as that of our nearest and dearest. We are frightened of becoming weak and needy, of losing our minds and our mobility, so we avert our eyes – a recent survey from the Disabled Living Foundation revealed that two-thirds of us dread becoming a burden on family and friends, while three in four are scared of illness in old age. The irony is that research has shown that those who have a positive view of ageing actually stay healthier longer.

Still, so intrinsic is our aversion to age that it is the first defining characteristic that toddlers understand in others – studies have shown three year olds can easily pick out pictures of differently aged people, pointing to cues such as baldness and wrinkles. We are, it seems, hard-wired to define people by the number on their birth certificate. Tellingly, statistics show that almost a third of people under 25 don’t have contact with anyone over 65, widening the gulf between the generations even further.

Social Change

Psychologically, we prefer to see the elderly as ‘other’ – with different attitudes, tastes and world views – and to admit that we have anything in common is to acknowledge that one day we will be like them (recent research has shown that people exaggerate the differences between themselves and others with characteristics that they fear having themselves).

Interestingly, in more ‘collectivist’ cultures – China, for example – it’s this very reminder of mortality that may underline respect for and the value of the elderly. Families know their time with them is limited, so they cherish their knowledge all the more – growing old is not growing obsolete, it is just taking on new and important roles. Our nuclear society in the UK – where many of us only have irregular contact with grandparents – is very different.

It seems that shifting our attitudes towards ageing would not only be good for old people, but for us in our older age too – studies in Japan, which has a similar respect for age to China, have shown the prevalence of depression and dementia is far lower, implying that this culture may exert a protective influence. Research in the journal Perspectives On Psychological Science this year has actually shown that we get happier as we get older – when we move from middle to old age, we focus on positive events and filter out bad ones, plus we cope with a negative event by shrugging it off and moving on. So instead of gasping at every grey hair, we should learn to celebrate age, experience and the innate self-confidence that comes with it, to see it as a new stage of life rather than the slow march towards the end of it. We asked five women over 60 to tell us how they feel about growing old…

60s

Elsa Clark is 69 and a retired fraud officer. She’s married with two children and lives in Leeds

“I was first diagnosed with breast cancer at 41. They removed my ovaries to boost my chances of the cancer not returning. It was devastating to go through the ‘change of life’ so young, but it was 20 years until the cancer came back. I think I’ve beaten it now and just want to get on with living

Getting older didn’t matter when I was younger – we’d been through two world wars. There wasn't the superficiality there is today. We had film stars like Elizabeth Taylor, but we didn’t try to look like them. Nobody said: ‘You should have your boobs perked up’.

When you’re young, you don’t realise you’re getting old – you see an old lady crossing the road, and you never imagine that’s going to be you. If you did, you wouldn't carry on. You suddenly get to 61 and think: ‘I’ve got those spots on my hands my grandmother had, I'm getting old’, but by then you’re not bothered.

What worries you when you’re 40 doesn’t worry you at 60. I wouldn’t want to live to be 100. I’d be happy to go in my 80s. It’s about the quality of life, not the quantity.”

With thanks to breastcancercare. org.uk for elsa’s story

70s

Elaine Brown is 72, married and lives in Henshaw. She has three daughters, four grandchildren and has had several careers

“I was born in 1940 and three months later my dad (who is now 96) went into the army. I didn’t see him again properly until I was nearly six. It was a time of uncertainty but we just got on with it.

When I was 18 I went to London to train as a home economics teacher and lived in halls. You were meant to be home every night by 10pm but I used to sneak out to the opera. I ended up teaching for five years but left when I was pregnant with my first daughter in 1966 (flexitime didn’t exist then). My husband and I decided we needed our own income and I’d read about Mary Quant setting up her own boutique in London so that’s what we did in our hometown of South Shields.

We were fairly useless to begin with and then we discovered black flared trousers. They were a goldmine. We were trailblazers at the time, no-one else we knew was doing anything similar. Since then we’ve developed property and set up restaurants – we’ve had to be adaptable.

I’m not too worried about getting older. I’m very active and in good health (I think I have my father’s genes). I still keep up to date on news, culture and technology. I don’t really care if people think I’m old – in my mind I’m not.”

80s

Jean Simper is 89 and lives in Hungerford. She has two sons and used to be a nurse and a farmer’s wife

“When I was younger, we never really worried about getting old, like women today. We had other things to worry about and were too busy! Me and my friends never talked about it, we just had great fun together.

The worst thing about getting older I suppose is that you can’t quite get around like you used to be able to. Day to day, I play bridge and Scrabble, watch television and sometimes have a friend in for a drink. There’s not much else you can do, really – I am 90 next year!

I do miss playing tennis – I played right up until my late 60s and really did enjoy that. I had great friends and we went all over the place to tournaments. I can’t do it now – I’ve got three stone of fluid on my hip and it’s getting worse, unfortunately.

I’m very lucky in that I still have good friends and a great relationship with my two sons [Paul, 49, and Geoffrey, 61]. We go out for coffee and meals, go to concerts and to the Proms every year. I studied music before I went into nursing, and it’s still incredibly important to me. A few years ago I approached George Michael in a restaurant in London and told him that as my son always went to his gigs, he should go to his. That was in my heyday – being older, you don’t really care!

I don’t have a favourite age; I think they’ve all been quite good. For my 90th birthday, I hope my sons will organise something – I would like a party, definitely a party.

90s

Alice Ivimey is 98 and lives in Southend-on-Sea. She worked as a wedding dress maker and was widowed in 1975. She has no children

“Back in my younger days we never really thought about getting older, we just got on with it. I most enjoyed being between 35 and 45 because there was no war, it was over, and I was at home with my husband. I didn’t see him for five years while it was on – he went to war straight away; we’d only just got married. When he came back we had no worries. Life was quite pleasant.

Nowadays I definitely feel younger on the inside than I look on the outside. I certainly don’t like looking in the mirror. I can’t see properly to put on my make-up, but I still like to look nice even though the only person I may see during the day is my carer. Just because I’m older, I still want to look my best.

Getting older is frustrating. People act like they don’t want to be interested in you. I think young people today don’t have any respect for the elderly; they don’t seem to have any sympathy for us when we get old.

Now life is different altogether. I can’t get out very much, I can’t read like I used to and I can’t see well so I don’t watch TV like I used to do. Also, I keep falling over and feel like my body is giving up on me. I’m 98 now and would rather go while I still have all of my marbles.

100s

Elfriede Bruning is 101, has one daughter and lives in Berlin. Part of the Anti-Nazi resistance in thirties Germany, she went on to become a prolific author.

“I had to give up my driving licence four years ago. I really loved driving. Today my car sits outside my flat, reminding me of the freedom I used to have. But I still have some choices – I smoke three or four cigarettes a day.

The other thing I’ve had to give up recently is writing. I’ve had over 30 books published, from novels to reportage, but nothing else occurs to me now; I’ve written it all!

Writing was my biggest love. I never had much luck with men. I was married for 10 years until we broke up in 1947. After that I had a couple of affairs. When my father died my mother came to live with me so I could care for her. Myself, my daughter [Christina, 70] and my mother seem to have scared every man away from me! I’m not bitter about that. I could never really cope with being confined or restricted by a man.

I still give book readings at festivals and in bookshops, it gives me a lot of satisfaction. But when this attention is over, what then? My old friends aren’t around anymore. I’m not too bothered about living much longer.

Visit ageuk.org.uk/get-involved to find out the various ways you can help elderly people in your area.

Photography: Karsten Thormaehlen

Picture credit: Rex Features

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