Given an old person is always 15 years older than ourselves, I figured the woman in the Jetstar queue ahead of me qualified as old. And if I was anxious about the queue’s glacial pace, I imagined she was in a panic about missing her flight. So I mumbled words of banal re-assurance. “Maybe I could bung on the ‘helpless widow’ act,” she replied chuckling. “That always works.”
And so I had my light bulb moment about the old. Never make assumptions. As we inched along, she proved as feisty as her opening gambit suggested. She was nearly 80 and worked. She ran an art gallery – a late-life career change – and I really should come see it.
My light bulb moment changed my views about the old – or the old-old as they’ve been dubbed. Like so many of my generation, I’d thought we baby boomers inhabited a different land. We were part of a Third Age in the life span – free of kids and work, healthy, and active. The old-old inhabited a Fourth Age. This was a time of dependency and frailty, the broken hip, and the nursing home. If we Third Agers were disciplined, monied, played the brain games and exercised, we might never slip over the precipice.
The whole nation is scared of the old-old. It sees the Fourth Age as a time of miserable decline. And this view leads to infantilising the old, ignoring them, mistreating them, disliking them, and dehumanising them. It’s got to stop.
I was reminded of my light bulb moment recently when Emily Millane recounted her own light bulb moment at the opening of a new research centre on ageing. Emily is 32 but will head the Centre for Applied Policy in Positive Ageing because she’s passionate about fostering new ideas about ageing. The centre will not only do research but put policies into action through demonstration projects.
“I was in Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens and I saw a nun in her eighties on a bench reading a Jonathan Safran Foer novel,” she told me. [He’s a hip and experimental American writer for those of you unfamiliar with his work, and to some minds, a bold choice for an eighty-year-old]. “And I thought, ‘How cute, good on her.’ And then I caught myself and thought, ‘No, she’s just another human being. Why am I thinking ‘good on her?’”
Emily asked the audience to think about Malcolm Fraser, the former PM who was 84 when he died in March. “Think about the term ’84-year-old man,’” Emily said. “The image it conjures up does not fit neatly with that of Fraser, someone sending out Tweets late in the evening on human rights issues just weeks before passing away. It demonstrates the difference between thinking about age in the abstract and personalising the elders in our society.”
Put another way, in the abstract the ‘old’ are viewed through the prism of unflattering stereotypes even as we assert the old people we know and love are exceptions.
Being eighty is the not the same as being sixty. Of course we’re at increasing risk of health problems, frailty, and dementia as we age. I’m not suggesting we don’t change – as we’ve changed throughout our life. But I’ve come to see most of us are fundamentally the same person at eighty as at sixty, and in many cases, wiser and feistier. If people were interested in cutting-edge literature at sixty they’ll probably read it at eighty; if they were political at seventy they’ll be political at ninety.
But the young and middle-aged will find their bodies do give out, sag and suffer illness, despite the gym, the supplements and the anti-ageing products. We’ll all need support, good medical care and age care services one day, and above all respect. We’ll be old and wrinkled, and maybe sick and frail but that doesn’t mean we’ll not be fully human with a rich internal life, complex relationships, and plenty to say. Just like old people today.
In her terrific book, How To Age, Ann Karpf warns of the danger of creating divisions: “We’ve created a new stereotype – that of the mobile, healthy and affluent ‘new old’, which at the same time demonizes the immobile, sick and poor ‘old old’. It’s as if old age these days only befalls those too powerless, poor or stupid to do something about it.”
There’s another approach she suggests: “each time we see an older person, we need to imagine them as our future self, and rather than recoil from their wrinkles or infirmities, applaud their resilience.”
On a personal level, I no longer assume old people I meet will be conservative or homophobic because of the era they grew up in. I seek them out at any gathering (they’re usually being ignored), and have enjoyed enlightening conversations as a result. On a national policy level, if more of us identified with the old, we’d fight for better aged care and health care, better paid staff, less patronising attitudes, and fair ways to fund good services. If we’re lucky, most of us will be old soon enough.
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