UNTIL relatively modern times, old age was not regarded as
depressing, but was credited with wisdom born of experience, with
patience, and a kind of dignity.
These days, commentators go on about the "geriatric explosion",
as though somewhere a horde of crazed octogenarians were about to
launch a bomb into our well-ordered society.
Inevitably, there will be increased demands on the health
service. Pension schemes are stretched by the obstinate refusal of
old people to die and so help to keep their funds in balance. No
one has yet proposed a cull of all those over a certain age
(although the film Logan's Run, nearly 40 years ago, was
based on that premise).
It is sometimes difficult for the elderly not to feel that they
are, if not an intolerable burden, at least a bit of a nuisance,
and a drain on society's resources.
Most of us, at some time in our lives, experience "gerophobia",
the fear of being old. Its most obvious symptoms are cosmetic: for
men, Viagra and the "cures" for baldness; for women - well, where
do we start? There is a whole industry geared to persuading women
that they can delay the tide of the years or, at any rate, its
We also have a general reluctance to use the vocabulary of age
about ourselves or those whose approval we cherish. We become
"senior citizens", the people of the "third age", "retired", but
definitely not old. That is fair enough, I suppose, but it does
imply that actually to be "old" is an unmentionable fate.
All of this contributes to our fear of age. This is not the same
thing as the fear of dying (although they may sometimes be
connected). It is more to do with our sense of self-worth, the
product of a culture that has forgotten how to respect old age and
how to approach it positively. It is fear of vulnerability, of
helplessness, of diminution, and loss of respect and status.
Yet at 82 I am still the sameperson as I was at 22, 42, and 62.
The body creaks, the memory is sometimes a bit sluggish (like an
overworked computer), but the character they serve is still here,
distinct and individual, replete with the memories of all those
years, but living now.
Of course, what we know about being old is based either on
ourown experience of it (if we have reached that stage in life) or
whatwe have learnt from the experiences of others. One thing is
certain, though: what we are in old age is shaped, to a greater or
lesser extent, by what we have been through all the earlier
episodes of life. Yet itis still true, as Tennyson puts itin the
mouth of Ulysses, that "Iam a part of all that I have been."
When, in ancient times, old age was treated with deference, no
one seems to have noted that old people can be awkward, forgetful,
untidy, and even occasionally smelly. It is a sanitised picture -
or perhaps a spiritualised one, because the elderly were seen as
receptacles of rich blessing.
Nevertheless, the ancient world, the world of the patriarchs,
prophets, and evangelists, was also brutally frank about two
things. First, old age brings responsibility. Second, it inevitably
ends in physical decline and death. Those are insights that today's
world cannot afford to ignore, however much it may wish to.
This is the first of four edited extracts from At the
End of the Day: Enjoying life in the departure lounge by David
Winter (BRF, £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.29); 978-0-85746-057-8;
Features, 10 January.