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A monster unto many

24 January 2014

David Winter considers what the young have to learn from the old

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 outward symptoms.

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.

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