New Internationalist

Head Over Heels At Sixty

Issue 112

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AGEING[image, unknown] Myths and prejudice

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Head over heels at sixty
Old people can't do gymnastics - and never fall in love. These are the stereotypes, but what are the facts? New Internationalist explodes the myths of ageing.

A 76-year old man was brought into hospital having collapsed with a mild heart attack. Oxygen revived him but the doctors were worried. Though fit and rational in other ways, the old man insisted on being allowed to phone his mother so she could drive over and pick him up. Afraid to discharge him, the doctors decided to keep him in hospital to see whether his mental state would improve. The next day his 95-year old mother appeared, having driven 100 kilometres, to take her little boy home.

If this true story surprises you, then chances are you are among the millions of people in the grip of a series of myths about ageing: the mothers of 76-year old men are dead. If not, then they are bedridden. And they certainly can’t drive cars. Those who insist that they can must be crazy — or senile.

Had the old man been anxious to get to his mother’s wedding on time, the unbelievable story would have been complete — the old just don’t do things like that. They’re miserable, ugly and sexless — not active and joyful.

Together, myths such as these add up to a cruel confidence trick — a trick which robs the old of confidence in themselves and the young of confidence in the future. The trick is based on one assumption: that the ‘ravages of time’ are as remorseless and inevitable as time itself. And if senility, disease and loneliness are inevitable accompaniments of age, then the only thing to do is shun the old and pray you die young.

But many of the so-called ‘ravages’ of time are not inevitable. By clinging to the myths of ageing we are cheated of the opportunity to ensure a good old age for ourselves.


‘Old bodies are sick bodies’
Ageing is not a disease, That brisk 95-year old woman driver is one of the 75 per cent of old people in industrialised countries who live healthy, active and independent lives.

It is disease that disables — not old age. While this means that the old in poor countries are often crippled by a host of untreated diseases, in industrialised countries only five per cent of the old are bedridden.

Old people fall ill no more often than any other age group. But they take twice as long to recover — partly because symptoms tend to be dismissed as ‘incurable’ consequences of ageing, and partly because of half-hearted attempts at rehabilitation. So the old tend to get either inappropriate treatment or no treatment at all.


‘Wrinkled face: shrivelled brain’
If a young man forgets where he left his coat, someone will help him find it. If an old man forgets, people tend to assume he is going senile.

But the evidence is that the young are just as ‘senile’ as the old. Experiments comparing 300 old people — average age 72 — with university students found that on measures of senility — like confusion, forgetfulness, self-neglect — the students were more senile than the old!

A World Health Organization study found that old people are no more liable to mental disorder than the young. And less than six per cent of mental disorders in the old are due to brain atrophy.

Learning and memory remain unimpaired until our eighties. In fact the amount of information stored can actually increase with age, along with our skill at taking in new information. Seventy-year old Australians have learnt German just as fast as 15-year old school children, while a class aged between 45 and 75 learned Russian nearly twice as fast as college students.

If you are clever now, you may be even more clever when you grow old.


‘Too old to work’
Most people can work until they die. In many countries they have to. With experience and skill to compensate for any decline in agility and strength, there is nothing to stop old people in most occupations working as long as they choose — nothing, that is, except compulsory retirement and discrimination in the workplace.

The International Labour Office reports that the old can be just as productive as the young, make fewer mistakes and stay away from work less often. If they have more accidents — and the evidence is inconclusive — it is because they are working in bad conditions with machines dangerous to people of all ages. It is jobs that are unfit for people — not people who are unfit for jobs.


‘Nothing but trouble’
An image of dependence — incontinent old women muttering to themselves in an institutional day-room — shapes our picture of the old But less than one fifth of the old in industrialised countries need physical assistance and less than five per cent are in institutions.

The rest often give more help than they receive. In the US two-thirds of old people discharged from hospital are cared for by their spouse. And over half of old people in the Federal Republic of Germany, the UK and the US help shoulder the financial and emotional burdens of the young. In Costa Rica one quarter of the over-sixties have dependent children to support.

Forced out of employment while still fit to work, then obliged to subsist on pensions paid from the salaries of younger workers —old people are made dependent.


‘Sex at sixty? You must be joking!’
It may take longer, but what’s the hurry? At least 47 per cent of couples in their sixties and 15 per cent of those in their eighties still enjoy ‘regular, frequent’ sex. Old people feel love, hate, pain — and desire — just as strongly as anyone else. The difference is that they are no longer permitted to show it.

Bereavement is the greatest trauma anyone is likely to suffer. And the loss is sexual as well as emotional. But ageing men and women are often frowned on when they want to marry and forbidden to ‘consort’ in many old-age institutions. Virility at 25 becomes lechery at 65. Yet one study found that three quarters of elderly remarriages were successful. And the bride and groom lived happily ever after.


‘Fun stops at fifty’
If old people are miserable it is because we make them miserable. By exhorting them to ‘act their age’ we force our stereotypes on them.

Gandhi was not ‘acting his age’ when at 60 he led a 200-mile protest march against the British. Marian Hart was not ‘acting her age’ when she flew the Atlantic solo at 84. And when Edith Piaf and George Eliot married men years younger than themselves, they caused a public outcry.

Such people will remain exceptions as long as the majority of the old continue to believe that they are unfit for work and unfit to play; that they grow more stupid each day and that their illnesses are incurable.

If you don’t like the stereotypes, if you want to keep on living and loving till you die, then it’s time to change the myths — before they take control of your life.

The permissible prejudice

‘I’ll clobber the next person who calls me a "wonderful old lady"!’ exclaimed the old woman indignantly. It takes a while to understand her objection. Why should a compliment make her angry?

But, putting myself in her place, I think I’d be angry too. Because the assumptions underlying the ‘compliment’ are that usually old ladies are not wonderful, that it’s astonishing she is not as decrepit as the others. To accept the compliment would be for her to endorse those assumptions about her fellow elders.

Remarks like these are on a par with: ‘not bad — for a woman’ and ‘some of my best friends are Jews’. They don’t counter basic sexist and racist prejudices. They merely point out some exceptions to what are accepted as general rules: women do most tasks badly. And Jews are nobody’s best friends.

Ageism is one of the most unchallenged prejudices in our society — and one of the most pervasive. Think of the way we use the word ‘old’ as a dismissive catch-all to signify disdain: ‘miserable old creature’, ‘poor old thing’, ‘you’re old before your time’, ‘silly old bugger’. If anyone frowns in disapproval it’s because of the sexual connotations of ‘bugger’ rather than the outright ageism of ‘old’.

I’m as big a culprit as anyone — muttering ‘Come on, grandpa’ if I’m caught behind a slow-moving car and accusing people of premature senility if they are a wee bit slow to understand what I’m trying to say. And I must admit that I laughed aloud when I read the following description of the four stages of ageing

Stage one: forget names
Stage two: forget faces
Stage three: forget to zip up fly
Stage four: forget to zip down fly

Now I don’t think it’s funny at all. And I’m developing a sharp ear for other ageist comments. In fact I’m afraid I’m becoming rather a bore — as boring about ageism as I am about racism and sexism. And I’ll clobber the next person I hear calling someone a dirty old man.


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