The ‘50 signs of old age’ misses what counts

January 20, 2014
dinosaur men

The main lesson I’ve learnt since my 60th birthday is this: never admit to being a dinosaur about computer technology. You might as well yell to the passing crowd, “Hey, I’m old,” as to confess to having been a late adaptor to smart phones, Twitter, Instagram, tablets, blogs and online newspapers. Never use the ‘D’ word unless at the Australian Museum in Sydney where a life-like Tyrannosaurus rex towers menacingly over the main hall so you can‘t help but exclaim to the grandchildren, “Hey, look at that dinosaur.” No-one under 58 thinks being a technological illiterate is cute. Keep your incompetence or your late conversion to the finer points of computer technology to yourself. That’s if you care about how a younger generation regards you. That’s if you care about not appearing “old.”

Mostly I like being 62. It’s so much better than middle-age with its juggling, stress, competitiveness, and need to prove yourself. It’s also better in many ways than youth with its angst and insecurity. But am I ready for anyone to write me off? Do I want to be one of those Grumpy Old Women on TV who are kind of funny but, in their negativity about progress, kind of pathetic? No way. Old is always 15 years away.

Recently a British insurance company Engage Mutual asked 2000 people what they thought were the signs of getting old. They came up with a list of 50 supposed dead give-aways. On the top of the list was Feeling stiff. Number 2 was Groaning when you bend down. It’s a list that, however confronting at first glance, misses the point. Some items made me cringe with recognition: Wearing your glasses around your neck. When did I start doing that? Some items made me think the list peculiarly British. I don’t know anyone, even in their 80s, who’s started Taking slippers to friends’ houses or Drinking sherry. I accept an enormous gulf divides the young and old on the issue of Hating noisy pubs (or restaurants). To a young person if a pub or restaurant is quiet, it’s a sign it’s going out of business; to an old person it’s a gem. Yet the generational divide is not so clear on item number 6: You don’t know any songs in the top 10. This could equally apply to my 20-something sons with their esoteric tastes in modern music so I figure I’m in good company.

Some of the signs of ageing are hard to hide or deny, like Losing hair if you’re a man and Getting more hairy – ears, eyebrows, nose, face, etc if you’re a man or a woman. Others like Forgetting people’s names can be disguised with recourse to “darling,” “love,” and Google. Some tell-tale signs are entirely within our control; we don’t have to broadcast if we’ve ever been Struggling to use technology. We don’t have to joke in public that we clung to the literal meaning of “cloud” and “cookies” long after they’d acquired new meanings in the digital age. I learnt to my cost almost a year ago that it was unwise to confess to an audience aged mainly under 50 to having only recently ditched a 10-year-old Nokia for a smart phone, and to being a brand-new convert to Twitter. You could see respect fly out the window. What’s taken her so long?

And here’s another thing: Talking a lot about joints and ailments is best done with sympathetic peers, not anyone under 55. When I was a working mother with toddlers, I thought of myself as part of a secret circle of other working mothers. To each other we confessed outrageous tales of how we’d managed to get to work on time. “I put Sammy to bed in his day-clothes last night.” “You wouldn’t believe what I had to do to bribe Jessica into the car seat.” Oh, yes we would. But we wouldn’t dream of telling anyone outside the secret circle. Thirty years later, I’m thinking the words “joints,” and “arthritis” should only be uttered in a secret circle of same-aged friends. Younger people despise those who groan when they bend down, until it starts to happen to them.

We’re all ageing, changing our interests and tastes as we mature, discovering new pleasures (though I’m yet to start Taking a keen interest in the garden). Who’d want to be stuck in a time warp, a slave to the top ten, killer shoes, and going out coatless in winter? To change is to be alive. Just because You avoid lifting heavy things due to back concerns doesn’t mean you’re old in your thoughts, your abilities, your enthusiasms, your desire to learn and contribute. It doesn’t mean you’re old-fashioned. I think of 44-year-old Senator Cory Bernardi, with his Neanderthal views on single parents, stepfamilies, abortion, and same-sex marriage as “older” than I am, as out-of-touch.

The trouble with such lists, and in confessing up to younger colleagues or friends, is that people will confuse outward signs of ageing with obsolescence and irrelevance. A lot of us feel more passionate about, and engaged with, the world than many younger people, and want to contribute. The line between young and old on what really matters is not as clear-cut as the stereotypes imply. “Inside,” my 90-year-old father-in-law used to say, “I still feel young.” Here’s the full list of the 50 signs.

What are the gains and losses that come with ageing? Please leave a Comment.

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