Some thoughts on ageing now that I’m officially old.

Recently I asked myself, “What’s the good news about being sixty-six and officially old?”

I thought hard and the best answer I could come up with was:

“Two things: I’m still here AND it’s now too late for me to get early onset dementia.”

I raised an eyebrow at myself in admonishment for the knee-jerk use of humour to deflect a difficult question, thought about it some more and admitted that I am quite unprepared for old age.

It’s not like I didn’t see it coming. So why haven’t I paid attention to it before now? Well most of us don’t, do we?

If we talk about ageing at all, we talk about it as something to be deferred or defeated or disguised.

We don’t talk about is what characterises the normal, natural progress of old age. We don’t ask the question: “What is the unavoidable cost of not dying before you get old?

Well that’s a bill that has now come due for me and I’m working out what the payment terms are.

I’d always assumed that the biggest changes brought on by age would be the physical ones. After all, if getting old happened to us all at once, we’d feel like a trauma victims.

The image that comes to mind is of Ursula Andress in the final scene of Hammer’s 1965 version of ‘She’ when Ursula, as She Who Must Be Obeyed, suffers the consequences of stepping into the flame of eternal for a second time, loses her immortality and turns to dust before our eyes.

Of course, we’re all turning to dust, but mercifully the process is too slow for our eyes to capture it. Except I’ve reached that point where, when I look in the mirror, the young man I used to be is no longer even hinted at whereas the even older man I could become is starting to push himself forward.

I’m becoming familiar with the physical changes to my skin and hair; to being two zero-grooming days away from looking like a homeless person; to being greeted each morning by small aches and pains from damage I inflicted, almost unnoticed, on my younger self and to tiring more easily but not being able to sleep through the night.

I can cope with all that stuff and anyway, it’s not like I have another option.

What I find harder to get a grip on is the way being old is changing how I see myself and how the world sees me. At times, it feels like ageing is an attack on my identity. At other times it feels like the next step in growing up.

I’ve identified three things that make me feel as if my identity is under pressure: my past is vanishing, I’m increasingly out of step with the present and my future is now visibly finite.

I feel as if my past is vanishing a little bit at a time.

I don’t mean that my memory is failing. I mean that my large parts of my past have suddenly become HISTORY.

Now, when a new novel is set in the Seventies, when I was a teenager, or even in the Eighties, when I first went to work, they are labelled as historical fiction. They’re period pieces that anyone born this century is likely to have to ask Siri to explain.

The cultural reference points, the shared knowledge of the minutia of day-to-day living that shaped my life for decades are starting to evaporate or to be mythologised. The first half of my life has either become contextless or has been over-written by a set of too-tidy-to-be-true clichés for each decade.

Even to me, some details of my past feel fictional. It seems impossible that, when I went to Infant’s School in the early Sixties, I wrote with chalk on a slate rather than with a pen in an exercise book. Or that, when I went away to university in the late seventies, my main way of staying in touch with the woman I would eventually marry was to use a pen to write, in cursive, on paper that I would then fold, put in a stamped addressed envelope, drop in a pillarbox and then wait three to five days for a reply. Ot that phone calls to her had to be made at pre-arranged times so that she would be home and required me to find a GPO Telephone Box (“Siri, what’s a GPO and what’s a Telephone Box?”) and have enough coins to drop into the phone.

My wife and I are the same age, from the same town and went to the same school, so we can at least remind each other that things really worked that way. Even so, each year, the number of people whose worldview was formed by the same events and circumstances as mine, gets smaller. I can also see that the world I used to live in is hard for people born after 1994, when the Web Page was invented, to imagine.

I know that I’m more than my past but it’s still unsettling to feel that past being erased from everyone’s memory.

Maybe my past disappearing would matter less if I felt that I belonged in my present. Yet, instead of losing myself in the moment and doing that mindfulness thing, I find that I’m increasingly shaking my head at things that other people seem to take for granted… like mindfulness.

Am I the only one who objects to an adjective being converted into an abstract noun as a way of marketing PAY ATTENTION as if it was a new concept? Will anyone under sixty understand why just hearing the word makes me sneer with contempt at the shallowness of the concept?

I accept that I’m more sensitive to words than most people and it can make me seem odd. For example, I got some puzzled looks recently when, on seeing that the buses in St Mawes were labelled as ‘Transport Cornwall’, I was silly enough to say out loud: “What nonsense. How can you transport Cornwall and why would you want to and where would you take it if you did?” Vocalising those kinds of questions is likely to be seen as a sign of poor mental health. To be fair, I’ve been on the receiving end of ‘Is he right in the head’ looks for decades now, so I can’t attribute them to aging but aging does make it worse. As language usage drifts and I stay still, I bump into more and more things that seem normal to everyone else but seem anomalous and sometimes even barbarous to me. Also, when I was in my twenties and made comments like these, I was just seen as odd. Now I’m seen as possibly suffering from dementia.

What’s more difficult for me to cope with is that my attitude to trust and privacy is out of step with most of the people around me. I see threats where they see progress.

Let me use cash as an example. I like cash. I use it to pay for as many things as possible. It has lots of advantages. I can’t spend it if I don’t have it. Once I have it, it’s hard for a bank or a government to take it away from me. Most important of all, cash makes it much more difficult for the government or the banks or large corporations to know what I spend my money on. For me, my right to spend cash is fundamental to my privacy and my freedom. Yet now I have coffee shops that won’t take cash. I have shops and banks that want me to do everything on apps that allow my data to be mined and my identity to be stolen and which usually want access to my location, my photos and my address book.

The pressure on my identity doesn’t come just from being out of step with my threat assessments for digital technology. It also comes from other people’s reaction to my assessment. Because I’m old, when I decline the apps, it’s often assumed that ‘the poor old dear doesn’t know how to use the technology‘. It never occurs to them that I’ve been working with this technology for a long time and I understand digitalisation well enough to identify a Trojan Horse when I see one.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a grumpy old man. I’d describe myself was an angry old man. I’m angry because I see things in my country going backwards.

I’m a child of the Welfare State. My health care and my education, including both degrees, were given to me at no charge. My government passed legislation to prevent discrimination on the grounds of race, creed and sex. Workplaces were made safer. Living standards for ordinary people were rising. People were living longer. We had more rights both as workers and consumers. We could travel to, live in, learn in, work in or retire in twenty-seven neighbouring countries. When I moved to work in Switzerland in 2002, I assumed that all of these trends would continue. That we would move forward, not backwards. I returned in 2018 to a post-Brexit Britain where living standards had been falling in real terms for a decade. Where the NHS, the police, the justice system and services from local councils had all been cut to the bone. Where poverty was at record levels and foodbanks were ubiquitous.

What I find most difficult about living in this poorer, meaner, present is the absence of organised anger. It’s as if people have forgotten that none of the things that made are lives better were given to us. We had to take them through protest, through the power of the unions, through political activism. All of which makes me feel old, out of step, angry and impotent.

The final pressure on my identity is the visibly finite nature of my future.

If I’m not unlucky and if the rate of economic and social decline doesn’t increase and climate change doesn’t bite too hard too soon, I might live for two more decades and, for at least half that time, I should be able to continue to live an active, independent life.

I’m fortunate enough to be financially secure, barring national or global economic collapse. When I was younger, I assumed that when I retired, I’d have time and money enough to do all kinds of interesting things.

It doesn’t quite seem that way now.

Before I retired, I was typically on a plane eighty to a hundred times a year. It’s now been almost five years since I used one. Partly that’s due to COVID. Partly that’s because budget airlines have been reducing their services and their standards. Partly that’s because climate change makes taking a flight when I don’t have to seem selfish. Getting off the island is getting harder: more paperwork, fewer ferries or trains and queues at borders that I used to just breeze through.

Then there’s my stamina. I’m not frail but travelling takes more out of me than it used to when I would routinely take the first plane out on a Monday and get the last plane back on a Friday and work sixty hours in between. Now I need time to recover as I travel.

So each trip takes longer to set up, longer to do and longer to recover from. And longer isn’t something I have as much of as I used to. Which raises the identity question: Am I still someone who travels a lot? Is that now something I do once or twice a year? Or am I pretty much done with it? For me, the answers to those questions have a big impact on my self-image.

In the same way, I’m starting to have to accept my own powerlessness, my inability to affect the world. I don’t have the authority, the energy or the time left to challenge anything in my day-to-day world.

I’m going to have to start to see myself as someone who puts up with things or gets around things but doesn’t change things any more.

Finally, there are the changes that I know I need to plan for but which it depresses me even to think about. I need a house that will let me live an independent life for as long as possible. Which means moving. Which means wasting some of the active time that I have left doing things I don’t want to do. So much for the freedom of retirement. I need to get my affairs in order so that I don’t leave a mess behind me. I need to deal with all the possession I’ve accumulated over the years and which I don’t want to became a burden that someone else has to deal with after my death.

And so on.

If I’m not careful, my visibly finite future will be eaten up by administrivia and preparing for my death.

What I need is a picture of who I want to be for the next ten years. A picture that will get me out of bed in the morning to do more than take care of necessary chores.

So there you have it. Ageing for me means a vanishing past, a present that I’m out of step with and a finite future that is in danger of being eaten up by things I didn’t choose to do.

It probably sounds like I should be wearing a tshirt that says, “I used to be an optimist, but I knew it wouldn’t last.”

The thing is, I find it helpful to think through these pressures on my identity so I can decide which ones to push back on and which ones to roll with. I feel better acknowledging the pressures than just trying to muddle through.

4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on ageing now that I’m officially old.

  1. What a wonderfully pensive elegy which speaks with such poignancy to the boomer generation, in which I count myself. Luckily I continue to spend lots of time with our elders, which can be quite humbling at times, but offers a range of interesting perspectives. Rather like being in the optician’s chair, looking back appears to be a process of continuous adjustment, an ongoing tweaking of the lens. Of course, the settings on which we alight can affect how we view the distant and nearby. Even the experience of poverty may not always dim the sheen of halcyon days, but I do start to feel the weight of the challenge awaiting successive generations. Have we been good custodians in our turn? Is the baton-pass of history going to be viewed kindly and with the sense of gratitude I still harbour for our immediate ancestors of the twentieth century. Only time will tell.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean about being grateful to previous generations. I think of myself as one of ‘Attlee’s Children’. I grew up in the Welfare State that his government created. I was the first person in my family to go to University, partly because I was the first generation for whom higher education was free.

      Attlee, Bevan, Cripps and their colleagues were born in the Nineteenth Century. They saw the poverty and inequality in Britain close up. They lived through both World Wars. They and the generation who voted for them, emerged from the other side of that trauma with a passion to build the basic decencies into out political system. I think we all owe them for that.

      I am bitterly disappointed that many people in my generation seem to have either lost sight of them or been raised in ignorance of it. Too often, they see themselves as ‘self-made’, attributing their home ownership and incomes to their own hard work without recognising the advantages that they were handed.

      If the polls are right, they are the ones who have kept in power a generation of Tories committed to turning back the clock to Britain as it was before World War II.

      The generation after me ended their tighter education, if they could get it, deep in debt and with almost no chance of being able to buy a house.

      The generation after them are struggling to leave home. There’s nowhere to rent.. There are no jobs. Many of them know that by the time that they reach their fifties, they’ll be living through the consequences of climate change that the current crop of politicians, lost in greed, narcissism and fantasies of empire, do nothing to prevent and who try to lock up those who protest their inaction

      I hope that that generation produces its own crop of Attlees, Bevans and Cripps and finds a way to restore the decencies that we were gifted with a century earlier.


  2. Whatever age we are, we acquire doubts and are aware of our limitations. However, if we continue to do what we love and get satisfaction from it, age does not matter. Your sincerity and heart are the greatest proof of that. Thank you for this post. Good luck

    Liked by 1 person

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