The longevity revolution is here – we might as well start enjoying it

Tue, Nov 19, 2013, 01:00

‘MAN COMES as a novice to each stage of life,” wrote Chamfort, the great French aphorist. As we stand at the threshold of these episodes, we generally feel both apprehension and expectation. What marks old age out is the degree to which we have allowed apprehension and negativity to take centre stage.

This struck me forcefully over the last few weeks following the release of my book on ageing for older people and their families. Curious as to where it might lie in bookshops, I found that most devote space to ageing in sections on health or positive living. The books on these shelves provide a telling testament to how authors succumb to, or promote, negativity about old age.

Most emphasize staying “younger”, with titles such as Younger Next Year, Live Younger, Live Longer and The Secrets of Staying Young. The occasional ones which mention ageing distance themselves from being old, including one fantastic subtitle promising “ageing without growing old”.

Happily, on my way out of one bookshop, I chanced on a remaindered copy (a sign in itself) of the wonderful Crazy Age by Jane Miller, whose words from her late seventies provide an antidote to the general negativity: “I like being old at least as much as I liked being middle aged and a good deal more than I liked being young.”

However, the overall flight from being old reminded me of a dinner I attended some years ago. An 83-year-old lady in a glamorous ball gown, discerning that I was a geriatrician, told me how good I was to be working with “those people”. Her harshness towards her peers is of a piece with a broader intolerance of the challenges of old age.

Underpinning these negative attitudes is fear and prejudice against the disabilities of later life, and a failure to incorporate its gains, such as insight, wisdom and greater command of some skills as exemplified by the late works of many great artists. If we do not allow old age the same leeway as all other stages of life and depict life with disability as less than 100 per cent worthwhile, then it comes as little surprise that supports and services will be eroded at times of financial pressure.

Gerontologists and advocacy organisations may also unwittingly reinforce negativity: a number of years ago the usually sure footed Age and Opportunity ran an advertising campaign for their excellent Bealtaine festival on arts ageing with a tag-line that “creativity doesn’t age”. Clearly and happily it does, as we can see in late Beethoven, le Brocquy, Matisse or Picasso, often in the face of considerable disability.

Theoretical concepts in vogue such as “successful ageing” may also undermine a balanced view. On first hearing, this sounds attractive, but on reflection how do we describe whose do not fall within the parameters of health, wealth and happiness of “successful” ageing – failed ageing?

A broader view of growth and loss in later life means that “optimal ageing” best describes our increasingly complex situations. Just because we have memory or mobility problems does not diminish our humanity or our worth, as we are reminded by many studies of life satisfaction.

In addition, gerontologists may portray ageing issues in a manner that overly focuses on burden and loss, rather than including also the key role of caring in our moral development and the depth of our relationships.

For example, a recent study on the “sandwich” generation generated much discussion of carer burden: yet, most of us wish to care for those dear to us, and just as we do not refer to the care to children as a burden, it would be more appropriate to consider the burdensome aspects of care rather than care exclusively in terms of a burden.

This allows us to see the real problem in context, largely one of lack of clarity and access for older people to gain support from formal care structures.

Most older people are themselves comfortable about ageing: if we truly wish to support them, let us also begin to think positively about, and welcome, our own transition to old age.

Our longevity revolution has added the equivalent of an extra five hours for each 24-hour day granted to our predecessors: let us not erode this gift by the power of negative thinking.

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