How do you feel about “milestone” birthdays? 21, 30, 40, and already you’re feeling old. 50, 60, 70 – grit your teeth at jokes about losing your teeth/hair/libido/mind and quickly change the subject?
After all, inside, you still feel 21. “70 is the new 50” you say, and, “If Mick Jagger can still rock, so can I.” And then you overhear a shop assistant referring to you as an old lady when – goddammit! – you’re only 55, and everything in you bristles at being written off.
Because that’s the problem. Western culture is full of negative stereotypes about old age. Check out how elderly people feature in the media, and three strands stand out. They’re:
- A burden, whose costly health and social care needs are a nightmare for taxpayers and communities
- Victims, lonely, confused, abused, in pain, robbed of dignity and respect
- Young at heart. Whether that’s stories of plucky pensioners parachuting from planes, or – for women especially – pressure to banish wrinkles and look radiant, it’s all about defying age
And yes, there’s truth in all these pictures:
- We urgently need to find effective, fair ways to fund good health and social care in old age
- We have to tackle the scandal of elderly people living in pain, poverty, isolation, or low-quality care homes
- We need to find treatments for diseases and conditions which incapacitate elderly people, and encourage innovations which support independent living
- It’s inspirational to hear stories of elderly people doing extraordinary things – like the late Dorothy DeLow competing in the Veterans World Table Tennis Championships when she was aged 100.
But these are only part of the story. They do not reflect what life is like for most people over 60. Most live full, vital lives through to their 70s and often into their 80s, before a relatively short decline with final illness and death. Yes, most elderly people will have some aches and pains, and some live with more serious disabilities and medical conditions. But “live with” is the key phrase. You’ll surely know people like this in your own families or communities. They don’t let their limitations stop them enjoying life, and carry on contributing to others and stretching themselves.
I meet them at the over-50s table tennis sessions I run. They haven’t played for decades, they want to do something new, they’re committed to improving their skills. They work around any physical limitations. They’re not extraordinary, they’re getting on with living the way people do, whatever their age.
These are the missing stories. The ones which turn 60, 70 or 80 into milestones we look forward to, rather than dread.
As a car driver, I feel a sense of freedom when I see the signs which mean 70 mph, and the end of those 30 and 40 mph restrictions. Imagine feeling similarly positive at seeing the signs for 70 years. The stories of ordinary people who live vitally in their later years show us it is possible. Let’s have more of them!