MOST OF US WANT TO LIVE A LONG TIME – RIGHT? – but we don’t want to grow old. Wrinkles and white hair look fine on other people – but on us? No thanks!
A bundle of nameless fears shroud the subject of old age: about going senile and sick … about being ‘over the hill’ and ‘on the way out’ … about getting dotty and dribbly and docile. Ageing is something we’d rather not think about.
But maybe it’s time we did? Let’s face it, one thing we’re ALL going to be (unless we die young) is OLD! And it’s happening – now! We’re all a year closer to the ‘Twilight Zone’ than we were 12 months ago.
So what’s the truth about old age. And what’s just stuff’n’nonsense?
Here, for starters, are some of the silly myths that make problems instead of persons out of the elderly …
1. It’s embarrassing to grow old
We live in a world which favours the young, and it’s tempting to feel that growing old is something you ought to apologise for.
This silly myth has been around for centuries. “Old age is the worst of misfortunes that can afflict a man,” wrote an Egyptian philosopher, Ptahhotep, in 2500 BC.
But wait a minute. ‘Old’ is mostly how you view it. An older person is simply one who has lived a long time. And listen to this 74-year-old spinster: “Yes, I am old. But that’s not a dirty word. I’ve earned every one of these grey hairs, and I’m not ashamed of them!”
‘Old’ is a word that describes all of us eventually, and New Zealand’s over-65 club welcomes hundreds of new members every week.
So what? That’s nothing to be embarrassed about …
2. You can’t do anything about getting old
This is true in the sense that you can’t stop the passing of time. Tomorrow you will be a day older than you are today. If you were born in 1950, you’ll be 70 years old in the year 2020. Short of taking your own life, you can’t duck that.
It’s also true in the sense that you eventually stop growing (somewhere between 15 and 20). You become slower at certain mental activities (starting in your late-20s). Your facial tissues begin to dry out (around the 30s). You experience a loss of eye-lens flexibility (from your mid-40s). And so on …
You may delay some of these physical processes for a .year or two – by careful, healthy common-sense. Or you may speed them up by stress, illness, smoking or a bad diet. But, in the long run, you can’t avoid them.
However, in other ways this statement is a myth. Why? Because there is plenty you can do about feeling old, looking old, acting old, or being considered old.
Just because you’re ‘growing old’, that doesn’t mean you must fit the stereotypes … give up on life … go quiet, dull and boring … consider yourself unemployable and unintelligent … resign yourself to a dreary nursing home … remain sedately in your rocking chair … or accept labels like ‘fuddy-duddy’ and ‘little old lady’ without protest.
You CAN do something about that!
3. The aged are past their prime
This one sounds good – but who understands it?
What do we mean by ‘aged’? If we’re going to be accurate, the ‘ageing’ are ALL of us – the infant in the pram, the four-year-old in kindergarten, the teenage athlete, the 46-yearold housewife, the retired bank manager. We’re ALL ageing. In fact, the process has even begun in the baby about-to-be-born!
What do we mean by ‘prime’? And how can we tell when someone is past theirs? Where do we draw the line?
A Russian gymnast may be past her prime at age 20. An All Black may be past his at 30. But the most powerful nations on earth are run by men in their 50s, 60s and 70s. And Picasso was still churning out works of art when he was in his 90s – what’s more, many critics think his last works are his finest!
Here in New Zealand, old people have positively sparkled:
- Hilda Alexander was in her 70s when she first attracted attention in 1969 – standing on the wings of a Tiger Moth as it flew over Blenheim! Her aerial stunts in the following years earned her the nickname, ‘The Flying Grandmother’.
- When Edgar Williams died (at the age of 91), he had become a legend for making many South Island first ascents. He was still tackling mountains a short time before his death … and he cycled round the South Island when he was 79.
- Arthur Lydiard, one of our most outstanding sports coaches ever, was still touring and lecturing on athletics at age 87 (the year he died).
- Edmund Hilary, rated by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, didn’t stop adventuring until he was 89.
‘Prime’, it seems, has little to do with age. More than anything else, it’s something in your head – and perhaps in your heart.
“I can honestly say that I have learned more in the last 10 years than I have learned in any previous decade,” wrote Pearl Buck (American novelist) in her Essay On Life. She was 79!
4. Old people have little to offer
We’re asked to believe that the older people get, the less value they are to the community – or to themselves. And the elderly are asked to play the game, to retire early, to step aside, to stay out of the way.
But the fact is, some people are at their best in old age!
Churchill was 66 years old when he led Britain into a victorious fight-for life against Nazi Germany. The poet, Tennyson, wrote Crossing The Bar when he was 83. Titian put the final brush stroke to his Last Supper at 99. At 74, Verdi composed Othello, and at 80 he produced his famous Falstaff.
The elderly have certain advantages. They’ve been around too long to care about the rat-race, to worry about appearances or ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. They’ve learned that living smarter is better than living faster.
The truth is, old folks have plenty to give.
5. You can’t think straight when you’re old
There are too many very bright, very old people around for this myth to survive. And, believe it or not, the mind is usually the last part of the body to wear out. So long as health holds up, there is no decline of intelligence with age.
Brain activity can slow down for a number of reasons – disease, inadequate blood supply, loss of brain cells, etc. Cell loss is natural, but even at the normal rate of 100,000 lost cells a day, a brain would last 550 years – so it’s no great problem.
Want to know the truth? Even the smartest people use only a fraction of their brain. The skills, knowledge and experience you accumulate as you get older can enhance your brain activity – and give you the edge over younger folk. Your memory may slip a bit, you may take a little longer coming to a conclusion (you’ve got a lot more data to sift through!), but your judgement and reason may actually improve.
Says one expert, “At 50 the mind hasn’t yet reached its zenith. At 60 it’s at its best. And from then on it declines so gradually that, at 80, those who have kept themselves mentally alert can be just as productive as at 30.”
Old age doesn’t guarantee intelligence or wisdom, and we cannot say that most old people are wise. But we can say that most wise people are old!
6. It’s a young person’s world
This myth became popular during the 60s with the rise of the ‘youth cult’. The accent on young people was so strong that grown-ups felt they had to copy their kids in language, dress, music, hairstyle, ad nauseam.
But time passes. And those who had refused to trust anyone over 30 soon reached that great age themselves – and exceeded it! The post-war baby-boomers got middle-age spread, and attitudes towards the elderly began to soften.
We could learn much from other cultures. Like China, for example. “In China,” writes Yin Yutang (The Importance Of Living), “the first question a person asks the other on an official call, after asking his name and surname, is ‘What is your glorious age?’ If the person replies apologetically that he is 23 or 28, the other party generally comforts him by saying that he still has a glorious future, and that one day he may become old. But if the person replies that he is 35 or 38, the other party immediately replies with deep respect, ‘Good luck!’
“Enthusiasm grows in proportion as the gentleman is able to report a higher and higher age, and if the person is anywhere over 50, the enquirer immediately drops his voice in humility and respect.
“People in middle age actually look forward to the time when they can celebrate their 51st birthday … The 61st is a happier and grander occasion than the 51st, and the 71st is still happier and grander, while a man able to celebrate his 81st birthday is actually looked upon as one specially favoured by heaven.”
Today’s elderly are numbering more and more. As birth-rates drop and people get to live longer, the over-65s will increasingly become a force to be reckoned with – and might demand the respect they deserve.
7. All old people wish they were young
There’s a human tendency to want to edit pain out of the memory – and idealise the pleasure – of the past. It’s the ‘good old days’ syndrome, and it’s natural enough.
But you can’t have your cake and eat it too. And most older people realise that. While the good old days were good, they also held their miseries. Youth was not, on the whole, as glorious as it sometimes seems from a distance, and old age is not as fearful as youngsters are often led to believe.
As one oldie remarked, “I don’t want to be young again. If you do it right, once is enough!”
Sure, some old people want to be younger. Some young people want to be older. And some people seem to get younger as they grow older – finding more freedom and less turmoil as the years pass.
The lesson is, surely, to be fully ourselves … and be fully alive at every stage in life. Why skip any of it?
8. Old age is an illness
Growing old means growing sick? What rot!
True, people age. True, they look and feel very different when they’re 80 than they did when they were 10. And true, the very old are more likely than the very young to suffer from senility (a not-very-accurate term for a disease which damages the brain).
But oldness itself is not a sickness! And nobody ever died of old age!
If you feel bad when you get old, it won’t be because you’re old. It’ll be because of what you do and the shape you’re in.
The point is, whatever your age, old or young, you can make yourself feel bad by not looking after yourself. If you have no bad habits and still feel bad, then something’s wrong – either physically or emotionally.
It’s not normal – at any age – to feel bad. You can expect to feel okay. And you can expect, anytime you don’t feel okay, to have that condition treated. The treatment may or may nor work, but ‘feeling bad’ results from sickness or injury – and sick and injured people can be· found in every age group.
Being old is not the same as being ill. It’s simply having more candles on your birthday cake!
9. Old people are out of touch
This is a put-down that’s simply not fair.
As the years stretch out behind us instead of in front of us, we’re forced to slow down and reflect on the meaning of life. And death.
This process turns some old folk bitter and mean. It causes some old folk to retreat into make-believe worlds. But for many more, old age gives a clearer, fuller appreciation of what’s important and what’s not.
Old age offers a chance to quit the mad rush of activity that runs our lives … to let go all those anxieties about prestige and security and fashions, all that clamouring after new houses and new cars and bigger bank accounts. It offers time to observe, to think, to pray … a chance to discover simpler, more permanent values.
Age seems to liberate many people. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the realisation that “you can’t take it with you …”
10. The aged die soon after they retire
No doubt about it, retirement does drain the life from some people: “Retired at 65, buried a year later!”
The sudden stopping of work, plus feelings of uselessness and inactivity, can destroy any person at any age. Especially the older person. And especially when it’s forced unemployment – or abandonment.
But retirement doesn’t need to mean any of these things.
It helps to retire to something instead of from something. It’s like the difference between parachuting out of a plane, and falling down a cliff. In either case, there’s a bit of a jolt – but the first option has much more future to it.
Some people retire very happily to a life of deliberate, planned idleness – and they love it. Others need plenty of constructive activity – mental or physical – and they love it, too. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle – and don’t want to arrive at retirement with nothing to do, no interests at all.
The sensible person doesn’t really retire. He or she just ‘changes gear’ and moves on …
11. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
Maybe not. But we’re talking about humans, not dogs. And there is a difference.
While it’s true that a younger person can more easily master skills like computer-programming and speaking a foreign language, this myth suggests that older people can’t learn anything new.
Which is garbage!
There’s often less need, less motivation for an older person to tackle new learning – but the ability to do that doesn’t shrink with age. In fact, there’s a good chance those learning skills may be even more finely-tuned in later years.
As adult education flourishes, more and more older folk – parents, grandparents, retirees – are returning to college or university, taking on fresh challenges, uncovering new interests, discovering hidden talents.
12. The elderly aren’t interested In sex
If this is true, someone should warn those oldies who are making the mistake of pursuing happy, romantic, sexually-active relationships in their older years!
The myth survives – along with ‘dirty old men’ jokes – in spite of all the research that says older people enjoy sex. They have the same range of sexual desires and problems as younger people – the only real difference being a gradual decline in sexual capacity. (An older man, especially, may need more time to become fully aroused.)
It was once thought that older people shouldn’t be interested in sex. (“It just ain’t right or proper!”). And it was once believed that menopause marks the end of a woman’s sex life – along with any further ideas on the subject. But these myths have been shot full of holes.
Moderate sexual activity is not only possible to a very advanced age – some medical people encourage it, on the grounds that it maintains normal endocrine balance and (wait for it) may even help you live longer!
13. People who are old shouldn’t be driving
In 1976, NASA (the US space agency) considered putting an age limit of 65 on participants in shuttle flights into space. But they finally decided not to. If the prospective space voyager qualifies and passes a simple medical, age will be no barrier.
So what’s all the fuss about “oldies behind the wheel”?
Okay, reflexes tend to slow down a bit with age. And okay, younger drivers on the whole react more quickly. But unfortunately, road accidents are not related to people’s ability to drive as much as other factors – like speeding, drinking, frustration, recklessness and aggression.
Older folk tend to be calmer at the wheel; showing better judgement and less tendency towards dare-devil driving.
No one can quarrel with periodic re-examination to test driver-ability, but it should be applied impartially to all licence-holders. Age, by itself, shouldn’t be a factor.
14. It’s bad to dwell on the past
This attitude stems from our lack of ‘roots’, our belief that history has little to teach us, that the future’s where it’s at.
Looking forward comes naturally to children. Where else should they look? They’re encouraged to think in terms of next week or next year, to make small sacrifices now for the big rewards later.
It’s the same for older folk. They look forward to more years of retirement, to the next birthday or holiday, to meeting friends or relatives. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t look backwards too.
Yes, there are some who lose themselves down ‘memory lane’ and live in the past instead of the present. But that’s the extreme. There’s nothing abnormal or unhealthy about recalling the years gone, enjoying the memories you have, and sharing them with others.
We are all products of our past. Our unwillingness to appreciate that and learn from it has left our culture shallow.
15. Families don’t need old people
What rubbish! Families need grandparents, and grandparents need families – more than ever before!
Every child deserves at least one adult who doesn’t ask, “Have you brushed your teeth? … done your homework? … tidied your room?” Every child deserves one adult who is there – not to supervise and straighten out, but to enjoy that child. And the trouble is, most parents are so busy keeping the world going that they lose the wonder and playfulness that children need.
Old age is a chance to rediscover those delights – and many elderly folk are fantastic with kids. Grandparenting is what they do best – and not just for their own grandchildren, either.
Most older folk have a lifetime of gentleness and warmth and wisdom that they can invest in children – and every family needs that.
16. Old age is the worst part of life
Says who? Every stage of life has its limitations and its headaches – just like every stage also has its unique joys and rewards.
Old age is no different. And many ageing people can testify – with enthusiasm – that “life begins at 40 … at 60 … at 80 …!”
It’s a bit like enjoying a meal. There are three things that happen:
(i) Anticipation: the appetiser is a great start, but we’re still hungry for the meal.
(ii) Participation: we tackle the main course and move on to dessert.
(iii) Satisfaction: finally, over coffee, we stretch back and relax in the pleasure of it all.
There would be something wrong if we didn’t enjoy each stage in turn – and the same is true of life. As people age, there is a gradual decline in physical strength and flexibility, in the speed of some mental processes and the ability of the body to fight off disease. But that’s about it!
It’s time we realised who the aged really are. They’re not problems – they’re people, just like us. In fact, they are us. Given time, most of us will grow old … and when we’re old, we’ll be viewed the same way we view old folk now …
It’s time we adopted the idea that old is beautiful – that a person with many years to look back on is not a symbol of disaster but of victory!
It’s time we learned to say ‘old’ in the same way we say ‘tall’ or ‘great’.
If we can do that, maybe one day these silly myths will finally disappear.
The young and the old
OLD FOLK KNOW A LOT MORE about being young than young folk know about being old. But young and old actually have a great deal in common.
Both age groups sometimes feel trapped by their age … manipulated by people who insist on making the rules for them … helpless and dependent on others … depressed, because they don’t know where they fit in … confused by the physical and mental stage they’re going through … and even unwanted.
How can younger people make the elderly feel wanted?
1. Don’t pity …
Older people have lived. They know a lot more than they let on – including how to tell when someone is just putting up with them.
They don’t need pity. They need to feel appreciated, worthy, important to you.
2. Pay attention …
Remember when you were a bratty kid? Remember all those birthdays and parties when your parents or grandparents faithfully made a fuss of you? Why not return some of that attention?
Considering what it means to old people, a little time and effort can be the greatest gift you’ll ever give. The elderly get a real kick out of being with the young – and let’s face it, they deserve you.
Jump in to help them with DIY jobs, directions, bus timetables or heavy shopping. Convince them it’s no crime they can’t walk fast. Offer to do errands on your way. Give them a hand with social security forms, bills to pay, or some cranky shop assistant.
3. Be interested …
No one can give you the view of life you’ll get from the elderly. They’ve been there, done that! They’ve survived wars. disasters, victories, defeats, floods, famines and economic downturns.
(How modern can you get?
4. Practice listening …
Maybe you’ve tried having conversations with elderly folk, and found them awkward and full of painful silences. Well, learn to ask questions. If you pick the right ones you’ll tap into more memories than you’ll be able to handle
Ask about things you’re interested in. If it’s cars, ask your grandfather about his first car (or the first car he ever saw). If you’re at school, ask your grandmother about her favourite school memories, who the teachers were, what discipline was like.
Don’t just ask for facts – ask for stories. Older folk usually find it easier to talk about their experiences – so give them the opening:
- Tell me about the first time man walked on the moon?
- How did you and Grandad/Grandma meet?
- What’s the funniest thing that happened to you as a child?
- How did you get your first job.
- Who taught you to drive?
- Were you around when the Queen first visited New Zealand?
- Family questions are extra useful:
- What do you remember about your mother? Your grandparents?
- Tell me about Mum’s birth?
- What kind of games did Dad play as a kid?
And get your grandparents to draw up a family tree. That’ll trigger lots of memories.
Paying attention to older folk, showing an interest, and really listening may not seem like much to you now – but in 50 years’ time you’ll realise what a wonderful gesture it was!
Keepers of the Vine
SPECIAL THANKS TO ‘THIRTY DIRTY LIES ABOUT OLD’ BY HUGH DOWNS (© ARGUS COMMUNICATIONS) FOR INSPIRATION, INFORMATION AND IDEAS.