I am old and I feel and look old. In addition, I think about being old a good deal of the time; not crossly or sadly, as a rule, but simply as a condition of my days and nights and what’s going on in them. I like being old at least as much as I liked being middle-aged and a good deal more than I liked being young. There are lots of bad things about it, but then there were lots of bad things about being young.
On the whole I take pleasure in my life and am not especially anxious for it to end, despite reminders from all quarters that the end is nigh for us all. But I’ve been lucky. I was born in 1932. I’m 78, and I still live with the person I married 54 years ago, whose work as a journal editor and academic has introduced us both to people who have, for most of the time, been lucky too.
I have children and grandchildren; though one son has decided to live in India, rather than up the road. I have had interesting work to do throughout my life: publishing, teaching in a school and then a university, writing. All that has furnished friends, too. And I still know, despite the ravages of time and death, many people as old as I am, or older.
I have several friends in their nineties and even more who are just a whisker away: most of them in full possession of their wits, and all of them weakened to some extent by their bodies’ failures. Collectively, they are deaf, blind, severely breathless and arthritic. There have been broken hips and arms and pelvises, mismanaged cataract operations, glaucoma and recurring leg ulcers. There have been multiple bypasses and the insertion of stents. And, of course, cancer of several kinds and a stroke or two. In each case there are anxious and by now fairly elderly offspring braced to insist on live-in help, the installation of warning systems, and alterations to staircases, bathrooms and bedrooms. In some cases there has been covert investigation of nursing homes.
Most of these kindly suggestions are stubbornly rebuffed. And collectively, these nonagenarians fly around the world accepting prizes, playing bridge, swimming, reading books and even writing them. They work and see their friends and make jokes, and behave like inhabitants of a world they assume is going to continue with them in it. One of them admitted to me recently that this was probably not the happiest time of her life, but she still marvels at the beauty and charm of a world she can only dimly see, and given half a reason to dress up will do so with elegance and aplomb.
These are people who know that they are likely to be dead within the next five years, and yet they give little sense of being haunted by death or dreading it, as do many people much younger than they are. It may even be that the sense of an imminent ending gives shape and urgency to the life they’re living now.
Ever since I have inhabited old age – for that is what it feels like – I have looked and listened, mostly in vain, for news of what it is like for other people who inhabit it as I do.
Naturally, I’m interested in its well-known depredations, the physical and mental ones that people in their forties and fifties so publicly dread, and whatever it is that causes us to throw up our hands in horror when younger people use words like “digital” or “leverage” or “issues” or start a lot of their sentences with “At the end of the day” and expect us to listen to what comes next.
And who would not delight in all the theatrical props of old age: the pills and sticks, the shrieking hearing-aids and dental weaponry, the tricks for countering the loss of names and threads and glasses and for circumventing insomnia, the visits to The Back Shop?
But that’s not all. I have a fond hope that there may be new kinds of time and new kinds of pleasure, perhaps even new kinds of vitality, and that though we forget and muddle and fail to hear things, there may be moments when we understand what’s going on for the first time.
No doubt the old have delivered too much advice and opinion over the years and deserve to be asked to keep quiet now. But it does sometimes seem that we are hemmed in by unnecessary and even self-inflicted prohibitions.It is nearly forbidden to talk about age. I am always being warned off it as a subject unseemly in itself and one that, once broached, is bound to end in complaints and sorrow.
Helen Small, who has considered old age as a philosopher and as someone who is not yet old, has written that “many of us spend more and more time, as we grow older, thinking about the fact that we are growing older and what it implies, but we also spend a great deal of time trying, more or less strenuously, not to think about that fact and what it implies.” Even Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote a nearly 700-page book about old age, ended it with the advice that “it is far better not to think about it too much.”
This embargo on old age as a topic reminds me of my early years as a mother when we tried not to talk about our babies for fear of being thought boring; the babies themselves were expected to remain unseen and unheard. Perhaps we were pretending that someone else was looking after them. I remember a grand lady’s indignation when a guest at her Sunday lunch brought a dog with her. “One wouldn’t, after all,” the grand lady announced later, “bring one’s baby!”
Since having a baby was the most interesting thing that had happened to me so far it seemed surprising that one couldn’t talk about it more. Some of all that may just have been squeamishness about bodies and their various leakages. Many years ago I fielded a telephone call to my husband from the writer V. S. Pritchett without mentioning to him that I was actually in labor, mid-contraction. He would not, I felt, have wanted to know.
Why do people allow the years after, say, 60 to collapse into something like an awkward afterthought, a sort of terminal waiting-room or exile, where the earlier themes and continuities of our lives are to be treated as radically attenuated, altered or defunct? These extra years would have seemed a miraculous bonus to many of our forebears.
We are not encouraged to dwell in the past, and in sticking to the present, we are warned off mimicking the young or over-identifying with them. We must guard against petulance about the modern world, while also insisting, if possible, that from our vantage point some things have changed for the better.
I confess to occasional feelings of relief that I may not have to share the terrifying future predicted for us all by public doomsters warning of political, economic and environmental disasters. Meanwhile, we must keep off the subject of death while also preparing realistically and practically for its imminence, and we are to be sparing in our discussion of illness, pain and all signs of degeneration. These things are not, after all, a pretty sight.
About 20 years ago I sat in a restaurant gazing at the left forearm of the American writer who was sitting opposite me. As she reminisced about Hollywood and a very public quarrel she’d had recently with another veteran writer, I marveled at her arm. Adorned with gold rings and watch and bracelets, its sunburnt wrinkles were neat and regular, like the ripples left by the tide on a sandy beach. I imagined her whole body wrapped in more of this finely pleated, tissue-paper skin, and I hoped (and believed, I think) that it would never happen to me.
Something very like it has happened to me, though I can flex my arms a bit and get them to return to a semblance of their old selves, just as I can pretend that my strange leopard’s markings are simply freckles of an unusual kind. But there are ugly arthritic twists to my fingers and odd lumps where my thumbs begin. I don’t wear rings any more, in order to avoid drawing attention to my hands. I am not horrified by these changes. They have happened to me slowly, gradually, and I have forgotten what my arms were like before, though I scrutinize young arms with an astonished pleasure I don’t remember feeling about my own limbs.
I don’t think that people of my age look at themselves in mirrors much. The person we occasionally glimpse there is someone else, with only a remote resemblance to the person we expected to see. Yet this unfamiliar mask we wear nowadays can be easier to live behind than that other face we had somehow to account for as it presented itself to the world. It was our fortune, after all, and this one isn’t.
I have no attachment to this new look. But its very foreignness affords solace, curiously, and I have no impulse to apologize for it or cover it up, even when, as happened recently, a two-year-old boy looked up from his scooter to ask me if I was a man. I suppose he wouldn’t have asked if there hadn’t been some chance of my not being.
Some people have surgery and go to other lengths to freeze themselves in youth or, more uncomfortably, to freeze themselves in those years that follow immediately after youth, when the beginnings of aging are already visible. One woman I know looks younger and prettier in her seventies than I remember her in her twenties, as a result of some quite elaborate surgery I believe she is happy to admit to. She is one of several of my contemporaries who have become much younger than I am, as a result of plastic surgery or lying about their age, or both, or perhaps because they are younger than me in spirit.
I am surprised by the passion with which some people strive to hold on to their youth or to reclaim it. I wonder if they enjoyed their youth more than I did, or if they didn’t have enough of it, or not enough of a good time when they were young. I am moved by that moment when people in their fifties begin to look older and struggle for the first time with the signs of age and with a sense of their own mortality and deterioration. I remember that moment as far harder to bear than the transformation and the invisibility I live with now.
Though I have no hopes or plans for an afterlife, I do, clearly, have some thought for posterity. And I hate to think that my grandchildren may be obliged to remember me, as Shakespeare’s Jacques puts it, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Vanity, no doubt of that.
This life is undoubtedly the property of the young – their moment, their acre, their sunlight. “Yet here to crazy age we’re brought,” in the words of Robert Burns. Here, wandering through it all, are the old, tottering, awkward, crazy, cackling and zigzagging our way toward the end, but also impudently here in what is after all our time and space too, no longer quite belonging to what we still possess and are possessed by, left stranded by our past, our supposedly best times, and averting our gaze so far as we can from the future. n
This essay was adapted from Crazy Age: Thoughts on Being Old, which is published by Virago and available on Amazon.com.