The sociologist and journalist Anne Karpf has just published her book ‘How to Age’, and on the basis of her research for it wrote an article for The Guardian yesterday. She suggests that ageing is a process feared by the young and endured by the elderly. It’s a phantom dread for people in their twenties, women particularly. Anti-ageing creams are advertised – and bought – to combat what in fact is a multi-faceted experience which has been reduced to shame about being but, especially, looking old. She challenges what she calls the narrative of decline, arguing that the polarisation of old and young rests on a fallacy. This denigration of ageing is built on the idealisation of youth. In reality all young people are not bursting with beauty and vigour; all old people are not crumbling into despair and confusion. In the end, we are one people.
Ageing, she claims, isn’t something that happens to us in the second half of our life, but a lifelong process and there are losses associated with every period of our lives.
We have to adjust to new circumstances in all the stages of life. What is hidden in our culture are the gains associated with ageing. Many older people say they stop caring what other people think about them so much. They savour life, enjoy it more fully, are better able to weather crises. ‘The idea that one’s appetite for life automatically abates with the passing of the years is simply wrong. On the contrary it often increases’.
Coincidently, Margaret Drabble, also writing in The Guardian last week, introduced a rather different debate about the right to die when life is merely a shadow of what it was. She believes that the elderly need to plan ahead and to make their own choices about when their lives are no longer worth living, rather than struggling along until its impossible to make any decisions at all.
The freedom to make this choice would be the best New Year’s gift an elderly population could receive. But she alleges that the doctors – in mortal fear of parliament, the law, the press and the General Medical Council – will continue to prevent change.
There are so many issues here that warrant a national discussion about longevity and the resultant changes in the structure of our society. Few of them are addressed by politicians, many of whom seem only to have a short term interest in the exercise of power. An example of this was the headline news on the BBC this morning. The Prime Minister has promised that if his party wins the General Election in 2015 they will retain the present link between the cost of living and appropriate increases in old age pension. All for the sake of dignity and security in old age, he said.
Or, as we might suppose, in pursuit of the ‘grey vote’.
Another dividing line between the young and the old, as young people struggle to cope with debt, job insecurity and exorbitant house prices.