The pleasures and perils of ageing

May 12, 2014
Lynne Segal
Lynne Segal

Lynne Segal finds it strange yet interesting and oddly re-assuring to see her mother staring back at her from the mirror. I know the feeling. The Sydney-born writer, feminist and psychologist who lives in London has written one of the most stimulating books on ageing I’ve had the pleasure to read, Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing. She’s appearing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival next week.

Drawing on fiction, memoir, personal experience and Freud, Lynne at 70 challenges many axioms about ageing – for example, that selfish baby boomers are to blame for current economic woes, and that dependence in old age is shameful. She’s caustic about the politics of small government and deregulation. What I liked most about her book was its rallying cry to stay open and attached to the world as we grow older. But it doesn’t sugar-coat the downside of ageing. I interviewed her via email to give you a taste of her work.

What inspired you to write this book?

It was writing my political memoir, Making Trouble, in my early sixties that brought me sharply up against the contrast between my shared dreams as a young woman, coming of age in the radical 1960s and immersed in the women’s movement of the 1970s, and the competitive, market-driven values of the world today. The future had turned out so differently from what we had hoped to see. For sure women had won many of the individual rights we sought, and some of us had flourished as never before. Yet as feminists we had also campaigned for a more egalitarian, caring and peaceful world, a greater emphasis on mutual support, quite the opposite from the values of the neo-liberal milieu we faced entering old age in the 21st century.

In other ways too, our feminist attachments had not quite prepared us for the challenges and paradoxes of old age, with women more likely to be living alone, increasingly marginalized and invisible. I wrote Out of Time to confront these challenges, beginning with the first anomaly, which is that we are nearly all living longer, indeed on average a whole generation longer than a century ago. Yet this has done next to nothing to shift the general cultural antipathy towards old age. If anything the opposite, and people are worrying about ageing at ever younger ages.

Why is it necessary to challenge the ‘ageing well’ narrative?

The fact that most of us will be living longer is not so much seen as something to celebrate, but nowadays often posed as a demographic ‘time bomb’  with societies having to care for an ever-growing number of old people. It is this which fans fears of old age. The antidote to such fears supposedly lies in notions of ‘ageing well’ which are strongly promoted today. The problem here is that this rhetoric of ‘ageing well’ tends to double as the possibility of not really ageing at all, but rather of clinging to the illusion that it is possible to stay forever young – with much self-help from the burgeoning pharmaceutical and cosmetic markets. It is fine that we should all be encouraged to exercise and stay as healthy as we can. But it’s worrying if the telltale signs of actual old age, and fragility, and the need for care come to signal personal failure, indicative of ‘ageing-badly’. Moreover, there are huge class and other economic divides affecting who will have access to resources for ‘ageing well’.

Has it been any easier for ’70s era feminists who challenged the ‘beauty myth’ to accept their loss of youth? 

Though we criticized the dictates of youthful beauty culture with its obsessive concern with appearance, it’s hard for older women not to lose confidence in a culture like ours which so prizes youth, fitness and speed. There is also the particular horror attached to the notion of the ageing woman. The harridan, witch, hag is quintessentially female, seen as monstrous because of the combination of her age and gender. There is no mythic male equivalent expressing similar levels of repulsion for older men’s bodies. Women’s solidarity may help  us endure but has not yet turned around the reality that women are simply aged by culture far faster than men and, as a general rule, discarded sooner – whether in personal life or, above all, in the public domain. Just six months ago, the interim report of The Commission on Older Women set up by the Labour Party in the UK provided exhaustive evidence of the continuing invisibility of older women in public life. In the BBC, for instance, 82 % of broadcast presenters over the age of 50 are men.

Did you come to a conclusion about whether men or women better accept the ageing process?

Ah well, it’s hard making any such generalizations…, From all the evidence I found it should be obvious that it is women who face the greatest challenges, ending up overall poorer than men, and far more likely to find themselves living alone. But it is not so simple. Because I also learned that men often express a particular horror of ageing, some of which is the fear of losing what they see as their ‘manhood’, becoming ‘more like a woman’ – more dependent, fragile and needy. Now of course in reality men have always been vulnerable and dependent on others, but part of youthful masculinity often involves acting as if one were impregnable. It is the sense of phallic prowess that helps men feel this. But the uncertainties in that domain that often accompany ageing have a particular resonance for men – feeding, for instance, the clamour for Viagra.

Thus, interestingly, in recent writing about ageing it is women, such as Germaine Greer, who have been more likely to proclaim a ‘post-menopausal zest’. While in literature, it is men who have most loudly expressed their horror of ageing, whether in the many words of Philip Roth or Martin Amis, two of the authors who write most prominently about ageing masculinity, mourning the fate of all men as the confident youth morphs into the shabby old man.

Why is it important to challenge the standard notions about caring and independence?

We need to rethink the idea of ‘dependence’… I have noticed that in secure contexts, frail old people, much like young dependent people, can give back quite as much as they receive. Even those caring for extremely helpless relatives are often devastated when they no longer have anybody left to care for, no one who depends on them. As I see it, and increasingly as we age, leading a full life means having others to care for quite as much as wanting our own needs met.

What are your thoughts about the pleasures and perils of ageing? Please leave a comment.

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