Thoughts on ageing and dying now that I’m fifty-five

I turned fifty-five in January. I know the current feel-good advice is that age is just a number, that you are as young as you feel, that forty is the new twenty, that I have years of healthy, happy, productive life ahead of me and so on and so on.

It’s true that I’m healthier and more active than my father was at my age and that I will probably make it beyond the sixty-nine years that turned out to be all the time he had. In all probability, I have another twenty-five to thirty years to go.

With luck and money, I should be healthy and mentally competent for at least fifteen of those.

After seventy, my body will start to run down and there is an increasing chance that my mind will begin to unravel, slowly stripping me of all the things that make me me. I will become a faded photograph of myself, reminding those who knew me of who I was, reminding me of what I have lost and presenting the rest of the world with the old man I have become.

Sometimes I wonder whether I would recognise the old man I will become if I met him today and whether I would be proud of who he is and how he lives.

The old man I’d like to be

I hope he is someone who has accepted the reality of being old without railing against it, who is not afraid to die, but who can still find a reason to live. I hope he has learned to express the love he feels for the people around him before he loses the opportunity altogether. I hope he is still curious about what will happen next. I hope he has replaced impotent rage with a focused determination to change what he can. I hope he has taken full advantage of having less and less to lose and risks challenging the things he knows to be wrong. I hope his wife is the centre of his world and that he done everything that he can to bring her safety and happiness and the absolute certainty that she is loved and cherished.

The old man I fear I will become

I fear that he will be frail and afraid; consumed with grief for all the things he never was and all the things he has lost and afraid of the indignities to come. I fear that he will push people away with his anger and bitterness, that he will cling to life at any cost because he is afraid to die. I fear that his wife will die before him. I fear that he will know that his mind has failed but no longer be sure about what that means.

I am an atheist. I choose to believe that death is the end of my personal world. I can’t prove that I’m right but it seems the most plausible explanation of the world as I have experienced it.

I watched both my parents die. One moment I was beside someone I loved. The next there was nothing left but the body their consciousness used to occupy.

I can see that, at a certain point, death is a release. At another point it is the final slap in the face from an uncaring universe. Either way, it is final, irrevocable. Heat runs to cold. Life leads to death. That’s all there is.

If you’ve read this far, you may be feeling a little uncomfortable. In the present day, sharing the intimate details of ageing and death is as taboo as sharing the intimate details of sex and childbirth were for the Victorians: we acknowledge their existence, we make oblique references to them but it is poor form to discuss the messy details with strangers.

We are happy to provide young people with all kinds of information and advice about the changes their bodies are going through and the physical, emotional and social challenges that they face but we don’t do the same for those who are becoming old. Instead we focus on ways of clinging to youth to the point where the natural process of ageing is presented as something we have failed to prevent and should have the good taste not to discuss.

I can sense the changes in my body. I have very little information about how many of them are age-related and how many are the result of current or past neglectful use. I have the beginnings of arthritis in one elbow, possibly the result of hitting the ground too hard when I came off my motorbike. My feet seem to ache more easily than they used too, as if they are somehow thinner. Cuts take longer to heal. Working all night takes longer to recover from. My hair is thinning and what’s left is turning silver. If I go a day or two without shaving and using hair product, I could easily be mistaken for a homeless person.

Not all the changes are physical. I can concentrate for longer than I used to but I have more difficulty remembering the names of people and places. I’ve developed a kind of double vision when I look at people: with the young ones, I can see how they will age, with the older ones, I can see who they used to be. I find it easier to solve complex problems and to predict the course of events.

Perhaps the most disquieting changes are emotional. I am quick to anger and slow to trust. I have less and less hope for the future, mine or anyone else’s. I feel more and more vulnerable, even though I am financially secure and professionally successful. I am less and less able to deal with crowds of people. Worst of all, I fall prey to bouts of what I can only describe as non-specific grief.

It is as if I have a deep well of sadness that can be tapped into by books, films, TV series, even small everyday events. When I fall into the well, I start to drown in loss. I cry. Sometimes I sob. Yet I could not say exactly what I’m crying for except that life has so much death and pain in it that happiness seems insupportable.

Most of the time, I muddle through, doing my best to find small pieces of happiness in each day. I have accepted that happiness is like snow or sunshine, you can’t hold on to it or store it, you just have to experience it while it’s there and use the memory to feed your hope.

So, after fifty-five years of muddling through, I have to ask myself the question: what should I be trying to change to enable myself to become the old man I would like to be so that I can die when I should, knowing that I’ve done what I should.

I don’t know the answers yet, but I will use the writing in this blog to try and help me find my way.

Advice from fellow travellers is always welcome.

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