Wednesday, 09 July 2014
The Privilege to Grow Old
It's a cliché, that headline. You see it printed on plaques and greeting cards and if people still stitched them, undoubtedly it would turn up on samplers:
”Do not regret growing old. It is a privilege denied to many.”
The thought could be a companion to another bromide, “Old Age isn't so bad when you consider the alternative.”
And that one could be taken as a reaction to actor John Derek's dictum in the 1949 movie, Knock on any Door: “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.” (Many other sources cited here..)
I doubt that Derek's character (or the film's writer) really meant that. I think the 17th/18th century satirist, cleric, poet Jonathan Swift nailed most people's feeling about old age, one that remains so more than 350 years after Swift's death: “Everyone wants to live forever but nobody wants to grow old.”
If anything, that sentiment has become only stronger over the centuries; it is now a cultural truism promoted and supported by the several billion dollar anti-aging industry.
From the cradle, we are brainwashed every day with images, jokes and advertising telling us that gray hair, wrinkles, saggy skin and other evidence of old age are bad, bad, bad and must be denied even when they are obvious.
We are exhorted to lie, pretend and spend large amounts of money in the attempt to make everyone looking at us think we are younger than they can perfectly well see we are.
When the appearance of old age can't be denied, people think saying “She doesn't act old'” - whatever that means - is a compliment. (By the way, next time someone says that to you, paraphrase Gloria Steinem as I do: “This is what 73 acts like these days.”)
All the negative energy aimed toward aging exhausts me. We're all going to die but in the United States, if we make it to 65, we can expect nearly 20 more years of living and that's just the average. Life expectancy at 65 for people in other developed countries is even a bit higher.
And it is a privilege to be here that long because some are not.
Too many friends died young. One was only 28. Another was barely 40. A third, the same year, was 42. And one, with whom I had planned to share a home in our old age, was 52.
It would be a wonderful thing if I could know what kind of old person they each would have become. I choose to assume they would have had no interest in worrying about how they looked at age 60, 70 and more and having known them well, I believe I'm not wrong.
They – along with some others I knew – didn't get the chance to find out what old age is like. I have that privilege and so do most of you who read this blog. Certainly we can use the time better than pretending we are not old.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marcy Belson: Mexico Adventure