The nature of old age and how we now perceive it. | andreusK - Contributor - Getty I


Like most British people I was saddened but not entirely surprised by the death of the Duke of Edinburgh a week ago today. However, what did strike me was that although the duke was just two months short of his 100th birthday, that fact in itself wasn’t particularly surprising in this day-and-age. Indeed his longevity got me thinking about the nature of old age and how we now perceive it.

For instance, I am earnestly hoping that the old biblical canard of a human life on earth measuring “Three score years and ten” is now properly redundant. Thinking about it, all sorts of age based assumptions are now hopelessly out of date, given the fact that over the past fifty years or so - average life expectancy has risen by almost twenty years from a persons mid-sixties to the mid eighties.

Yes, okay - there are national, regional as well as socio-economic reasons behind these figures, but - at its most basic level, we are all living a lot longer than we once were. At one time you could be accused of entering middle age during your early forties, now it would be fairer to say that this state of mind and body should be recalibrated to a person’s 60’s and beyond. Alas, this still doesn’t make me feel any better!

It wasn’t long ago that a person (particularly a man) dying in his mid-sixties would have been perfectly normal; nowadays that would seem tragically early. Just as today a person living a full life well into their nineties barely rates a mention at all. My own father for instance, died at 57 years-of-age - unthinkably young to a modern generation, but not that rare an occurrence during the mid 1970’s.

Much of this increase in a persons longevity has to be about better health care and better diet, but - I wouldn’t always subscribe to that theory when observing some people stuffing their faces with unhealthy food. However, that sort of food is cheap and it is an undoubted fact that statistically poorer people usually die earlier than those with a more affluent lifestyle. Unfortunately, it seems that the ‘downside’ of this increase in longevity is the rise in all types of age related dementia diseases.

If you think about it, age related socially driven activities have changed quite considerably over the past twenty to thirty years. Blushing teenage brides and gawky grooms, barely old enough to shave, are an institution of the past. Firstly, marriage is not always the first ‘must do’ a couple decide upon when they get together and children can come along in their 30’s and early 40’s not just in a couples teens and twenties.

Yes, can you imagine starting a family in your teenage years nowadays? For instance, I’m very much a man of my generation - my two children were born when I was twenty-six and twenty-nine years of age and their mother the exact same age - that would seem very young for some couples of this modern generation.

There is a theory however, that the earlier you have your kids, by the time you are in your late 30’s and 40’s you are a free as a bird - rather than standing outside of a school gate well into your 50’s!

Then there is the whole business of maturity. I have this theory that the present generation is at least ten years behind those of the past. This means - 20 years of age now equals 30 and 30 now equals 40… and so on. This could be just a rearrangement of life’s timeline in response to continued longevity, or - it could mean that young people take longer to grow up nowadays.

Whilst you think about that one whilst nodding in agreement or scowling in outrage, I believe that a persons age is - not as important, or as all defining as it once was. In the past there were very apparent strict norms in which a person was supposed to act within, but happily these age based ‘speed limits’ are all but redundant. Take the term ‘middle aged’ - the new interpretation of that state of grace would have me and others live to at least 140 years-of-age.

But that’s just being pedantic, surely? Nevertheless, nobody wants to be labelled as elderly. My mother-in-law is a sprightly and independent 91 year old who lives alone in the UK. I remember a conversation with her when we were trying to persuade her to have a personal-safety alarm system installed in her home for obvious reasons. When I finished outlining the benefits of such a system to her, she slowly shook her head and said - “No, I’m not really that interested Frank love - they’re for old people aren’t they?”

Perhaps there is now a fluidity in the ageing process; whereupon at one time, there were rather strict social norms that most people had to observe and obey. Happily or otherwise - not anymore! Nevertheless, there are negatives to this liberalisation of the ageing process; for instance, whatever happened to acting your age?

I believe that there are a few Do’s and Don’ts when you pass - er, er, sixty. Believe me, nobody wants to see you dance the Lambada. Never start a conversation thus - “Back in my day…” Also remember not to comment on anybody’s - a) possible sexuality - b) interest in doing a days work, or - c) inability to use indicators (this is a particular favourite amongst the elderly).

Finally, one of the positives of the steady reshaping of age appropriate behaviour, is the interaction and compatibility between people of all age groups. Shared passions and shared values, plus an ability to think afresh what you always took for granted, will make you feel young once again. Or so I was told by this old bloke I know.