Recently I hosted a dinner for six friends from my local Meet-up group, one of whom said she would be bringing a guest. Being one of the oldest in the social group, I automatically assumed the guest would be younger than I was. She wasn’t. She was at least 70 years old. When I first saw her, she was hunched over, shoulders down, and looking uncomfortable among the seemingly much younger crowd (I fool them every time!). She also said nothing, trying to act invisible, as though she had no right to join in.
I deliberately drew her into the conversation at certain stages, focusing on her life in a community home, the things she did, what she was happiest about, what she was proud of, and her routine experience, just like the others. And the change in that woman over the the evening was phenomenal. She started to join in hesitantly, then gradually expanded on her answers, then mentioned her exploits, like having been on the London Eye, and climbed a ‘small mountain’. Then she focused on the dates she was having, and how she decided a guy was right for her to progress, and the great aspects of living in a community that was there to support her, while giving her total independence to lead a normal life whichever way she chose. Here was a woman who, at first, looked afraid and fearful, and who, having been shown value and appreciation, was now disclosing the real her, not the sanitised version of what others might want her to be in her 70s. She literally came alive.
I mentioned her, because, being an Age Champion, I have been following specific Tweets for a few months now from organisations like Age UK and Over 50s etc, relating purely to older people, and I am slowly beginning to see why many people would dread getting older! After all, what is there for them to look forward to, judging by the tweets, except living problems, illness, backaches, loss of faculties, loneliness, weakness, eternal dependency on others, and well meaning days out - herded like sheep and devoid of their individualism, competence and intellect? It is a dismal world for the old, even among the well meaning people who champion ageing, due to the one size fits all that operates with numbing consistency.
Doom and Gloom
After four months of absorbing the constant doom and gloom around ageing, I was beginning to feel suicidal myself! What has saved me is the life I lead, despite a debilitating illness, and I know that the majority of older people live it too: one of activity, hobbies, energy, accomplishments, and companionship. I KNOW there are great older people out there as role models and empowered icons. We just don’t hear about them under the all embracing blanket of doom and gloom. Being old, for ordinary people (not everyone can be Helen Mirren!) seems to represent one problem after another. I guess for those charged with senior issues, if they are only armed with a hammer, every age problem will look like a nail!
Yet look at all the leaders around the world, especially in dictatorships, who go on and on and on like Ever Ready batteries, without any of the lifestyle issues projected on to them. I stress ‘projected’, because whatever happens to older people, the negatives that are constantly being tweeted about, actually happens to a minority of aged, not the majority. We actually have stereotypes operating as the norm. They are projected to represent every older person, often by younger people who fear ageing and don’t know how to treat it, so they put the old in little manageable boxes, well out of sight, labelling them to suit their own fears and inadequacies around age!
But the figures for seniors (for example in the UK) don’t add up to making ageing such a sad experience. According to the UK National Statistics, 17% of Britain’s population are over 65, that’s at least 10.7 million people. And only a fraction of them are in care homes, debilitated or incapacitated. Yet they are the ones used to represent old age. But just as the young are singled out for their varied POSITIVE activities and achievements, so the old should be treated too, not as if they have no life except for needs, problems, afflictions and medications. After all, ageing is just another evolving segment of life, not external or alien to it! If the positivity around ageing was flagged as often as the negatives, there would be less anxiety around ageing, more role models to emulate and the importance balance that is needed in dealing with age.
And speaking of needs, go on any website to do with ageing, and you will find all these great services being laid on for seniors: like friend phoning, friend visiting, friends reading, and friends smiling - but all from a distance. No one ever mentions the elephant in the room that could put a spring in their step and save the NHS millions per year treating illnesses that are created by loneliness - SEX and the emotional bond and intimacy around it! The desire for love and sex is furtively repressed, while talk of sex is deliberately suppressed by those feeling too uncomfortable to acknowledge or to even mention it, except in a sanitised context. We have a brand new technological world full of wonder gadgets and we are still treating ageing people with the old mindset of prudery, official dictats, emotional repression and handy labelling, according to how we perceive they should live, instead of according to their actual needs.
Yet all that most people need in our world - whatever their age - is someone to LOVE them, VALUE them, and to RESPECT them for what they have to offer in conversation, in company and in life. In essence, to feel significant, attractive, and desired at ANY age. To have that essential long term companionship than any fleeting one. They do not need patronising, or other people’s idea of how they should live.
In our modern world, except for the most disabled who have lost their faculties, all that most older people need is a computer. Everything is on there to get them out of their lonely lives. I am speaking from personal experience as a 65 year old who left my marriage without any relatives for support and have lived completely alone, yet totally fulfilled, for the past 10 years - and that is despite a long term illness too. I have never been lonely. Though I have no close family in Britain, I am always in communication with someone somewhere, whether physically present or through my computer. There is so much to do and enjoy to the extent that the time I am on my own is often treasured. It is also magical going dancing every week, doing interesting activities with my local social club, going on dates, exploring possibilities for a new partner, joining others for activities of my own choosing, or hosting interests too, all thanks to my computer.
Love, affection and sex reach parts that no one else can. To be affirmed and loved by someone close to us who is there for us is life affirming - the greatest gift. Older people should be steered towards that instead of depending on just occasional friends’ visits whose company is useful, but detached. A friend who will be spending odd times with you is not the answer to everything. But someone to hug you and comfort you and make love to you can do wonders for our emotional health. Nothing is different about older people except perhaps a lack of information about living the best life after work, awareness of linking up with others through modern technology and social media, and changing mindsets to generate a new and empowering existence. It is other people’s perception of the old, that they no longer need sex and affection, that keeps them in this childlike bland state of nothingness, and kills their motivation, their feeling of being alive and wonderful, and their sense of purpose and usefulness.
Time to address the elephant in the room. To focus on the positives of what the majority of older people are doing: their thoughts, their desires, their accomplishments, their routine positive existence, and their aspirations, instead of this extraordinary focus on the negatives around them - to focus on what they could have, instead of what they lack. Time for them to be encouraged to LIVE, instead of just waiting patiently to die, as other people’s expectations of them gradually bury them in loneliness and irrelevance.
(These few pictures, taken to celebrate my 65th birthday, say far more about what I mean, than I can say in words.)