Everything you wanted to know about ageing (but were afraid to ask)

Unthinkable: A philosopher and a lawyer have teamed up to try to answer older people’s deepest questions

As you grow older, you face new challenges. You also start asking questions you never asked before. What should I do with the time I have left? What’s the fairest way to distribute my estate? Can wrinkles be glamorous?

That last one is straight out of a new book Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles and Regret by Martha C Nussbaum and Saul Levmore. It makes a plea for open and honest debate "about topics that are often regarded as awkward or private".

Nussbaum, one of the most prominent philosophers in the US today, says "ageing does risk bringing us all to a second childhood" characterised by egotism and grumpiness. But, like lawyer-economist Levmore, she challenges some common assumptions and cultural norms surrounding older people.

Why, for example, do "gap couples" – where one person is much older than the other – attract negative commentary? "Public displays of affection by gap couples often make onlookers uncomfortable," writes Levmore, in a discussion on Donald and Melania Trump.


One reason for this, he suggests, is because gap-coupling features economic inequality, where the man usually is both older and wealthier. Moreover, a marital break-up to make way for gap coupling can seem unfair as “our experience is that when a couple divides, the ageing man has more romantic opportunities ahead of him than the ageing woman”.

The issue is far from straightforward, however, and Levmore suggests we will develop a new attitude toward gap couples as more “self-made affluent women” take up with younger partners.

Nussbaum and Levmore answered questions in turn for this week’s ‘Unthinkable’ column, and while they don’t offer simple solutions to the tricky problems of older life (indeed the two thinkers disagree on certain points, such as managing retirement in the workplace), they do have a common piece of advice. Families, they say, should have “meaningful conversations” about the questions which really count “before disability or death intervenes”.

How does one grow old gracefully?

MN: "Think about Shakespeare's King Lear, a profound study of how not to age well. The play shows us a man who has made a life of asserting his own power and controlling others. He has no relationships that are not based on power and control. He cannot even comprehend Cordelia's genuine love. So when he loses power he is totally at sea, virtually mad, until, with the Fool on the heath (and the Fool alone has never deferred to him), he comes to understand something about human vulnerability and love.

“But we can, if we are fortunate, learn these lessons earlier, trying to form relationships of real reciprocity, so that the temptation to solipsism that comes with age does not derail us. Good habits are everything.”

Can ageing lead to a crisis of meaning as one reflects one’s deeds in life?

MN: “Reflection at first seems useless. If the past can’t be changed, what’s the point of looking back, whether with satisfaction or regret.

“I think, though, that there are two things to be gained. First, being true to oneself. Regretting bad actions is an expression of deeply held values, of one’s character. To feel regret is at the same time to stand up for who one is, or aims to be.

“Second, people often find meaning in stitching together a narrative of their life, telling a story that makes sense of where one has been and tried to go. I would caution however that this narrative should not be made too tidy.

“A lot of life’s richness and joy is in the small daily things that don’t fit easily into a narrative. A good friendship or love has a story line - sort of. But it also contains meaningful moments of joy or sadness or humour that don’t fit into any grand arc.”

It’s sometimes said that the best thing an older person can do for the next generation is to retire. Should there be a compulsory retirement age?

SL: “Of course not. The best thing an older person can do for the next generation is cure a disease or write a good book, or perhaps show how a good life is lived. The last of these might involve a period of ‘retirement’ or new challenges, broadly defined.

“I argue in our book that a good job might be more rather than less likely if employers and employees could voluntarily agree on a retirement age. When I was hired at age 30, I might have agreed to retire at 70. I could always look for another job in the middle or at the end, and the next employer might take kindly to the idea that I would not be an overpaid and less productive person who chose interminable work.

“A problem with a rule that requires the employer to show that the ageing employee is inept, is that it leads to strife in the workplace and imperfect fact finding. Moreover, if we expect pay increases as we age, we should recognise that there comes a point when our higher compensation is no longer justified by our improvements as employees. Indeed, at some point decline is virtually inevitable.”

What is the best way of distributing one’s wealth?

SL: “Surely there is no single best way, and much depends on the amount of wealth and the situations and decisions of our children and others. But a few general observations can be made.

“First, do not wait until the end to be charitable and generous. Generosity is catchy and a good example to set for one’s children. It is very rare in my experience for generous donors to regret that they gave money away in the past. Indeed, it is often a highlight of life.

“Second, one needs to think and talk about the norm in many modern societies of treating one’s children equally (except in the event of dire need). For many people, it is a good idea to violate this norm in order to pay for care that one child provides, but also to resist threatening or using wealth to get desired behaviour. This is the stuff of squabbles.

“Finally, for many families it makes sense to make decisions when one has full capacity for decision-making, and then trust someone else to carry out these wishes. That avoids strange late-in-life decisions, and also keeps family members from thinking that they are in competition for affection - or manipulation - with one another.”

Why are many people uncomfortable contemplating romance and sex among older people?

MN: “We’re brought up to feel aversion and disgust toward the ageing body, as a sign of weakness and mortality. At some point this disgust gets applied to oneself, and makes one ashamed of one’s own body. Some part of this may be evolutionary, but most, I think, is cultural.

“So that is one problem. But it is greatly reinforced by cultural myths that say that only younger women can be sexually desirable and that older women should gracefully retire from an active sex life.

"But ageing love, for both women and men, has distinctive advantages – of accepting time, living in time, and relating to one another's bodies as, so to speak, rivers of time. We need, and are beginning to get, new cultural myths showing all this. (My favourite movie on this theme is Helen Mirren and Om Puri in The Hundred-Foot Journey.) I note that Shakespeare knew all this already, in Antony and Cleopatra."

One of the chapters in your book is titled ‘Can Wrinkles be Glamorous?’ Well, can they?

SL: “To me they can. As we age, we value humour, intelligence, insight, and experiences more than we did when we aspired to win high-school beauty contests. These preferences are often associated with ageing.

“Moreover, virtually all of us are deeply flattered, in the right kind of way, when someone likes us for who we are and what we think and say, rather than for how we look or conform to some idealised sense of beauty. And even if it is natural to like some features of appearance or body types, is it really a good idea to fall for someone at age 20 based on their appearance at that time?

“I’d rather see at age 30 what a partner and I would look like at age 60, in midlife, than I would spend my 60s visualizing a partner as she was at age 30.”

Do values necessarily change as we age? And, if so, is this a good thing?

SL: “I would not be proud if my beliefs at age 70 were identical to those I held at age 30. Nor would I want to be the sort of person who had a full makeover every decade, with a new face, new spouse, new friends, new god, and new favourite music every 10 years.

“We evolve, but we should always worry that our changes are not thought through or not genuine. Still, I like to live for the future rather than the past. As we age, I think that happiness and value is enhanced by embracing change, enjoying rather than resenting new technologies, and so forth. With these enhancements, our values seem to change, and perhaps they do. This does not make them necessarily superior or trivial but it is part of life, and part of the reason to live on.”