Its time to banish our fear of ageing, says Penelope Bennett, and embrace the opportunities it gives
It’s time to banish our fear of ageing, says Penelope Bennett, and embrace the opportunities it gives
IN 1850, LIFE expectancy was about 38 years at birth. At the turn of the 20th century it was 49. By the time Lennon and McCartney were songwriting in the 1960s — at which point 64 was forever etched in everyone’s memory as decidedly old — it had risen to 69. Most recently, in the UK at least, it was put at 77.4 years for men and 81.6 years for women (but 84.3 and 88.9 respectively in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the highest on record).
Looking ahead, more than half of babies born in the UK and other wealthy nations today will live to 100 years. By 2050, Europe’s number of centenarians is predicted to have reached a quarter of a million. One wonders whether telegrams will still be sent out to people who make it to 100, or whether the bar will be raised a bit to save on admin costs.
That modern medicine has extended our collective lifespan to allow for 71 year-old men to climb Everest and 66 year-old women to give birth is extraordinary. But — and there is a ‘but’, which is what’s pushed me to write on this subject — we need to give age more than just a cursory ‘wow’ and we must make an effort, all of us, to acknowledge the advantages of a steadily ageing population. Not debate — we’re helpless to reverse or stop it. Accept. It is fact.
Let us begin by amending retirement laws that currently prevent men and women from working past the compulsory retirement age of 65. Aside from being forced to put an end to what they find an enjoyable activity (for the most part), they currently receive no redundancy payment to make up for the sudden cessation of income. Which is almost abusive, in my book.
Change this law to allow for a mature workforce to come into being and find multiple benefits for the reaping: studies show that people who take on full- or part-time jobs after reaching retirement age have better health and feel more positive about growing older than their non-working counterparts (contentment counts for a lot on this planet), while businesses, in turn, gain from the presence and input of a knowledgeable, wise and mature workforce.
AND FOR THOSE of you in the back row making catty remarks about an old person’s less-than-lighting-speed ability to recall names and numbers on demand, know this: practice and effort, say researchers, override the negatives. So there.
Professor Sarah Harper of the Oxford Institute of Ageing has designs on the ‘one employer, early promotion and early retirement’ formula eventually being replaced by portfolio careers with regular retraining and changes in occupation.
Granted, it’s a bitter pill to swallow at first if you’re 30 now and are already looking forward to retirement, but trust that you’ll be doing society as a whole a favour by powering on. As Harper puts it, mature societies provide the opportunity for multigenerations to live and work alongside each other, contributing to their own experiences and expertise. We can all gain from all being here. It’s a case of respecting your elders, really.
Which is why I think it rude to say that Japan and other countries with a rapidly ageing demographic have a problem with the elderly. My mother – not Japanese, but I’ll get to the point – gave me a card for my last birthday that read ‘By the time your children are fit to live with they are living with someone else.’ I felt a pang of sadness on reading it, even though I’m thrilled not to be living with her, as I’m sure she is to not be living with me. What the card did was bring back the memories of all our highs and lows that, then and now, overwhelm me on contemplation.
Our elders are part and parcel of life. They exist, and thank God for that. How dare we call their growing in number a problem. A problem!? Invaders are a problem. The elderly — us in a few years — were there before us, didn’t ask to be born in the first place and, despite what cynics may conjure up in those narrow little minds of theirs, aren’t now sticking around just to rub us up the wrong way.
Call it an issue if you must. How to care for and look after those that are past working age and don’t have a family or other half to look after them is an issue, and a pressing one, absolutely. So let’s all work on fixing the issue, and refrain from looking down our nose at it. Because God forbid you get to their age and it isn’t resolved: the youth of the future may be even less kind and might well call pest control on you.
LET US ALL fear age a little less. As we embrace older people in the workplace, let us wean ourselves off the demonisation of age as ‘the great inescapable time disaster’ and ‘a process that reeks of indignity’. Stop smothering it with derogatory connotation like the BBC’s Grumpy Old Men and instead embrace it as fact.
Advertisers have already got the ball rolling, with GAP, Marks & Spencer and Le Comptoir des Cottoniers all using ‘mature’ models in their ad campaigns, and, by Jove, didn’t people sit up and take note when Mimi Weddell (pictured), who began modelling at 65, appeared in ads for Nike, Burberry, Juicy Couture and Louis Vuitton, and in editorial pages in Vogue and Vanity Fair. She had wrinkles! She was old! And she wasn’t ashamed!
But more still need to follow suit — the film and publishing industry in particular — if older people are to feel they’re being acknowledged. If you represent or own a business, act. Show them you believe they deserve better than invisibility, which they resoundly do: last year the ‘grey market’ was responsible for 40 per cent of the consumer demand in this country, spending some £200 billion a year.
I came across one company that sells iPods preloaded with 1,000+ tracks from the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and I bet they’re raking it in, their success likely lying in their elegant approach to shouting their service from the rooftops — ‘iPods for old boys’ in pretty italic font next to a moustachioed dancing dandy.
Tell it like it is: tell them you’re there to serve them. Japan has a dedicated age-segregated shopping area that now rivals the once famous Harajuku district (full of crazy youth sporting pink hair, mismatching knee high socks and Vivienne Westwood miniskirts). Why not have one here in the UK?
Let us adapt. Japan (we could really learn from them), the country that gave us the Palme d’Or-winning Narayama Bushiko in 1983 (about a remote mountain village where the scarcity of food leads to a voluntary but socially-enforced policy in which relatives carry 70-year-old family members up Narayama mountain to die) has created prisons with wheelchair-friendly stair ramps, handrails in the bathrooms and nurses trained to spoon-feed inmates. Like its wider society, Japan’s prison population is aging rapidly, but at least it’s rolling with the punches.
SPEAKING OF PUNCHES, let’s get active. If you too want to rock like Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger — all of whom are 60+ and move more vigorously in a three-hour set than the average twenty-year-old modern-day pop star does in a week — move. It’s never too late to get out there and work up a sweat, and if you’re nervous or need some help I recommend Kathryn Freeland, MD of Absolute Fitness and personal trainer to A-listers young and old.
No-nonsense, established, professional and human (I’ve met some robots over the years), Kathryn is of the everything-in-moderation school rather than the protein-shake academy. She shuns the gym (hurrah!) and promotes normal, natural exercise outdoors instead. Battling the elements (rain, wind, cold and uneven surfaces), she says, engages your brain to coordinate and balance your body and so prevents you injuring yourself.
Being outdoors is also much more pleasurable and normal than running on a treadmill and contributes to your wellbeing overall, as you’re not shocking your body into doing something that is fundamentally alien. ‘There is no secret to living to a ripe old age,’ she says matter-of-factly, although to look at her — face and body belying her years — you’d guess that exercise definitely has something to do with it. We should all be in such fit and fighting form.
Let us think ahead. Julie Burchill, who has been described as a ‘firebrand journalist specialising in OTT polemics,’ (ageing being one of them) wrote ‘if all you ever had going for you were your looks then losing them will be mis [miserable]. But that’s your own silly fault for not cultivating the rest of you.’
Ladies, hear this.
Teenagers: get cracking.
Children: ditch the computer games. The more time we spend in the two dimensional cyber-world (social networking sites for adults and computer games for children — but come to think of it, vice-versa works too) the less we have in face-to-face conversations in real time which require a sensitivity to voice tone and body language.
As Baroness (Susan) Greenfield told the House of Lords in February, beware ‘the mid-21st century mind (that) might almost be infantilised, characterised by short-term attention spans, sensationalism, inability to emphasise and a shaky sense of identity.’ And don’t get me started on Second Life, the ‘online society within a 3D world, where users can explore, build, socialize and participate in their own economy.’ Frightening. Is simply being normal and in harmony with fellow (real) men and women not an option?
Currently, every hour we live adds five minutes to our life expectancy. We should be celebrating this. We should be welcoming this. We should be accomodating this.
Mimi Weddell was an exception in her day, a loveable excentric. By 2050 she’ll be the norm. How much richer we’ll all be for it, I say.