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Sunday 17 November 2019
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On getting on in age

TT may have its zillion frustrations, and the fact that we seem hell-bent on destroying and squandering all our advantages is so deeply troubling that it makes you want to pack your bag and leave, but there is one enormous pleasure in living here that is hard to replicate elsewhere. The fact that we do not live in an ageist society is worth leaving the bags unpacked for.

An extreme example of the lack of discrimination against the aged is how older victims of murder and violence get no special treatment. An 80-year-old is just as likely to get it in the neck as a middle-aged person or a toddler. Ghost-takers simply do not make concessions on grounds of vulnerability, not because of age, at least. We know we must protect the weak and so it upsets us to learn about acts of violence that reveal an apparent lack of compassion.

But as someone approaching the other side of modern middle age I am rather pleased not to be reminded of that increasing vulnerability and be singled out for special treatment. Maybe I will feel differently once I am very old.

I remember the deep embarrassment I felt as a child on the odd occasion when my rather dominant grandmother, back in the days when there were fewer than one car to every three people and the roads were much safer as a result, would take me firmly by the hand, raise her dainty ladies' parasol as high as she could and just stride onto the roadway without looking right or left. The cars would summarily come to a halt until we were over to the other side.

I used to think she got away with it because she was old and I clocked then that there might be some unexpected advantages in old age. I did not realise that it was merely another aspect of her bold character, which she took into her mid-90s. And I am rather surprised that drivers in this millennium still stop to wave pedestrians onto the roadway if they feel like it, even when it is not safe to do so.

Of course, my grandmother was old only to me. She would probably have been in her sixties and not feeling old at all, if her daughter, my mother, is anything to go by. I have had long discussions with my mother, soon to be 98, about this subject and I see how easy it is for business to exploit our fears of age.

My grandmother spent no money at all on cosmetics to hide crow’s feet around the eyes, or gels to make them appear bigger, nor did she wear lipstick or pluck her eyebrows, dye her hair, or wear make-up except for face powder. A bottle of Ponds cold cream is all I seem to remember, along with a detailed knowledge of the benefits of coconut and olive oils, Epsom salts, lemons and limes, avocado, fruits and plants in the garden that looked like weeds but which could be used to enhance ones natural looks. She never felt lesser because of her age and retained her authority and confidence at home and in public.

My grandmother and great-aunt cared about the fine clothes they wore, both settling comfortably into the different body shapes they assumed with age. They accepted their altered lives and circumstances in a way that my mother finds difficult to do.

My mother’s increasing physical frailty makes her unhappy, although she is actually healthier than I am; she riles at losing power and independence and constantly offers to help me with my work, full aware that her professional skills, once so prized, have little value in today’s technological world that I inhabit. Her advice, good judgement, fearlessness, resilience and courage are what I rely upon. It is almost a case of “if the old could,” to quote the second part of the well-known French piece of wisdom. The start of the sentence is, “if the young knew.”

International media messages push us into regarding age as the loss of looks, strength, lifestyle, dignity, money. The market exploits the French writer Simone De Beauvoir’s opinion that old age is life’s parody, that we should not compare life with death but, rather, with old age because death simply transforms life into destiny. We therefore try to cheat old age and death, which is fair enough, but we ignore just how hostage we are to the consumer market place.

In the end, ageing is a question of attitude. I take my mother’s lead in regarding age as a number, of maintaining a sense of wonder and enthusiasm and bringing my increasingly long life experience to bear on daily life. It is our only defence against the quiet makers of ghosts.

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