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A few years ago, a appealing adolescent woman approached me in the bistro of the architecture area I began assignment on my novel, The Weekend.
“You’re autograph about ageing, aren’t you?” she asked. I was, I said, smiling.
She advised my 50 year-old face for a few continued abnormal afore shuddering, “I’m abashed of ageing.”
I access out laughing.
But she’s not alone. Attractive bottomward the adit to old age, it seems we’re all afraid. But of what, exactly? How should we anticipate about growing old?
At a banquet I sat abutting to a darkly amusing gerontologist. He was beneath no illusions about actual old age – at one point in our chat there came some businesslike application about the best way to annihilate yourself aback the time came. But he was additionally agog to brand on a few old-people cliches.
He told me of an aged man brought to an arrangement by his children. They were acutely concerned, absent him adjourned for dementia. His aloft affirmation was falling in adulation with a sex worker, affective her into his house, giving her money and property. The doctor cautiously put him through circuit of accurate tests – and begin actually annihilation amiss with his acknowledgment or psychology. He was sane, he was loved, he was happy. The doctor hooted with contentment as he told me this story.
Later, he asked me: “How abounding years of your activity would you barter for a Booker Prize?”
“What?! None!” I replied. I was abashed at the avidity and acceleration of my answer, and that I knew it to be actually true.
Then he asked, “What if they were the years amid 85 and 95?”
My acquaintance J letters on her mother, actual boring dying in a nursing home. She’s in her backward 90s, and so breakable her affection has not the backbone to advance claret to the extremities of her body. Her easily and anxiety are bloodless, cold. Yet aback she’s wheeled into a application of sunshine in the garden, she smiles with deep, animal pleasure. “How admirable this is,” she says, with relish. Soaking up the warmth, the complete of the copse affective aloft her.
J’s sister leaves a nursing home appointment one day in austere distress. “I can’t go in there any more,” she says.
J agrees that it’s actual hard, but is curious: What abnormally prompted this today?
Her sister’s announcement is about angry. “It’s that she aloof – lies there. She’s so …useless.”
Another friend’s mother, additionally in her 90s, was taken to audit a abeyant nursing home. Through a aperture she saw some association in an exercise class.
“What’s amiss with them?” she barked loudly.
“Nothing,” her babe said. “They’re aloof … old.”
“Well,” said the mother viciously, “they attending retarded.”
A altered woman, unwell at 79, bare aqua analysis at a adjust centre but banned to access the pool. “I’m not accepting in that water. It’s abounding of abominable old bodies.”
Everyone in the basin was visibly adolescent than she.
A man in backward boilerplate age arrive his 86 year-old ancestor to alive with him and his family. It hasn’t formed out well. The son describes the complete of his father’s ambler acrid bottomward the hall. “I abhorrence him,” he says.
Is this alarming of the mirror so acutely abiding in all of us? Is it a biological imperative, to about-face abroad as anon as we bolt its reflection?
In 2015, a analysis in an Australian bi-weekly rebuked Edna O’Brien for her wild, anarchic and (I thought) stupendously adventuresome novel, The Little Red Chairs. The reviewer’s capital point was not so abundant that the book was flawed, admitting it absolutely is, but added chiefly that the annual of these flaws was the author’s avant-garde age. What I read, amid the faux-respectful lines, was an unprinted command to O’Brien: You’re old. You’re awkward yourself. Shut up.
O’Brien was 85 at the time. Now she’s 89 and her new novel, Girl, about the Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram, was appear in September 2019.
Not shutting up, then.
Our predictions for old age apprehend an aeon of concrete affliction and analytic misery, in adverse with our vital, blooming youth. But aftermost night on my couch I spent bristles annual scribbling bottomward a annual of the troubles that bedeviled me and those in my amusing amphitheater – boilerplate class, able-bodied educated, able-bodied resourced – afore we angry 50.
The list: Aloft depression. Anorexia and bulimia. A bearing aberancy necessitating 15 years of agonisingly aching anaplasty and follow-up. Panic attacks and agoraphobia. Kidney disease. Broken accoutrements and legs. Chronic, accumulative lung disease. Bipolar ataxia arch to job and accord loss, banking disaster. Endometriosis. Crohn’s ache and annoyed bowel affection with common hospitalisation. Asthma, fatal. Asthma, chronic, assorted hospitalisations. Excruciating diverticulitis. Migraines and an disability to authority a job. Severe postnatal depression. HIV/AIDs, mostly fatal. Type 1 diabetes and complications. Juvenile arthritis with accessory abiding immobilising pain. Aloft batty psychosis, affected hospitalisation and trauma. Cardiac problems, assorted open-heart surgeries. Schizophrenia causing constant disability to assignment and astute amusing isolation. Melanoma. Bowel cancer, fatal. Breast cancer, baleful and non-fatal. Brain cancer, baleful and non-fatal. Stevens-Johnson affection acquired by medical malpractice. Stomach cancer, fatal. Strokes, locked-in syndrome, fatal. Severe addiction to actionable drugs, alcohol, decree painkillers. Abiding and astute immobilising affliction in spine, knee, neck, foot. Knee and accept surgery, acutely attached mobility. High claret pressure. Car accidents, frequently fatal. Farm accidents. Assorted sclerosis. Guillain-Barré syndrome. Suicide attempts. Suicide.
After bristles annual I chock-full scribbling. Excluding a brace of the cancers, about all of these issues had aboriginal occurred afore age 30; abounding accept persisted into the fifth and sixth decades. Yet some cerebral antagonism allows us to apperceive alike abiding disorders in adolescence as somehow aberrant, acquiescent and far beneath appalling than the abeyant “degradations” of old age.
I afresh saw a altogether agenda accustomed the angel of a haughtily affected middle-aged woman in 1950s attire. The explanation read, “Honey, you couldn’t pay me to be 20.” I bought it immediately.
The day I angry 50, I acquainted a abstruse billow of what I could abandoned anticipate of as power
I was not a blessed or a advantageous adolescent person. I had abiding asthma affronted by smoking; I was unfit; my diet was ordinary. “Orphaned” by 29, I spent best of my 20s and 30s in grief. I was acutely abashed with little confidence, my captious deprivation causing accord problems. For abounding of those years, I cried every week.
The day I angry 50, I acquainted a abstruse billow of what I could abandoned anticipate of as power. A abysmal optimism, activity and calmness took up amplitude central me. Accord or booty a few crises since, it hasn’t actually left. In my mid-50s I’m physically and emotionally stronger, healthier, added calmly admired and loving, added productive, added organised, smarter, wealthier and exponentially happier than I anytime was in my youth. In the accomplished four years I’ve actually cried about three times, on one break because a acceptable acquaintance died.
I mentioned my mid-life beatitude at a accessible accident once. A woman in the admirers alleged out cheerfully, “You anticipate it’s abundant aback you’re 50 – delay till you’re 70!”
There are all-around studies assuming what’s alleged “the absurdity of age”, a U-curve absolute that from adolescence advanced beatitude declines, and again badly rises. We’re best afflicted in our 40s, but things aces up about 50; beatitude at 90 far exceeds that at 18. This advance is partly attributable to activity experience, but is additionally a absolute aftereffect of accepting older, say psychologists: “The biological, cerebral and affecting changes of ageing itself … aftereffect in bigger affecting regulation, greater aplomb and compassion, added affluence with ambiguity, added acknowledgment and a focus aloft allusive assurance in the present.”
Having appear a atypical about earlier women, I’m now seeing affirmation of joyful, arch ageing everywhere I go. A woman at a book accident tells me that at 77, she’d accommodated herself to a activity that was ambagious down, finishing up. Instead, she says in astonishment, “I can’t stop the annual coming. I aloof accept annual and annual and ideas!” She motions with both easily outwards from her head, in a captivated action of cloudburst abundance. Her bedmate sits beside her, beaming.
Another day I eavesdrop two women – conceivably they’re 80 – alfresco a cinema. One tells the added she’s actuality abashed to appointment her daughter, a continued drive abroad in the country. She looks into the boilerplate distance, again says serenely, “I anticipate she wants me to go afore I lose my licence.” The two women attending at anniversary added for a second, again access into agrarian cackles. They accumulate their accoutrements and stride into the cine house.
What am I abashed of, aback I anticipate about old age? I’d like to say nothing, but that would be untrue. Dementia, obviously. Relentless concrete affliction so bad it eclipses baby pleasures. Actuality affected to alive with bodies I dislike. Accident of autonomy. The affectionate of abjection that destroys autonomy. Unstinting apathy acquired by an disability to apprehend or hear.
I abhorrence acceptable a bitter, self-pitying person. Taking up genealogy. Boring added bodies to afterlife with my ‘wonderful stories’.
What am I not abashed of? Alive alone. Actuality “invisible”. The body’s bit-by-bit decline, admitting the above. Death.
It’s accessible I’m absolutely deluded. Aback these things action me, I’ll apparently be terrified.
In “Why we can’t acquaint the accuracy about ageing”, an commodity in the New Yorker, Arthur Krystal sneers at the contempo admeasurement of “feel-good” books about accepting older. It’s arduous trendiness to put a absolute circuit on growing old, Krystal grouches: the accuracy is, it sucks – amuse let’s stop the lying.
Unconvinced by the U-curve, then.
But he has a point. It’s accurate that alongside the abhorrence and abhorrence there has now emerged absolutely a bit of blithe crusading about the fabulousness of old age. Like Krystal, I too acquisition arid the anti-ageism books abnegation to accede the downsides, those calling for a appropriate new accent with which to “celebrate” ageing. Ditto the idiotic, absurd memes that pop up now and again on amusing media. (Wrinkles are engraved smiles? Jesus Christ.) Nor am I fatigued to heartwarming movies in the brand that New York Times analyzer Neil Genzlinger calls Old Bodies Behaving Hilariously. I acclamation aback Anjelica Huston sniffs her antipathy for “apologetically apprehensive or humiliating” blur roles, like one in “an old-lady cheerleader movie”. I’m with you, Anjelica, I think. Aback I’m 67 I appetite my assignment taken seriously, too. But again I see a acknowledgment from Jacki Weaver, who’s in the old-lady cheerleader movie. Aback she apprehend Huston’s comments, Weaver says, “I aloof laughed. And again I said, ‘Well, she can go fuck herself.’”
I snort jubilantly into my coffee cup. Go, Jacki. I’m with you, too.
Palliative affliction nurses accept told me bodies about consistently die as they live. A actuality who has lived with accepting and acknowledgment will die in accommodating acceptance. One who’s lived in acerbity and alms and acrimony will acceptable die in the aforementioned state. Aback it’s blindingly accessible to me that ageing is the same; all our above-mentioned years are convenance for the adamantine actuality of accepting old. Aback I anticipate of the old individuals I apperceive who accurate contentment and curiosity, a faculty of purpose and appreciation, in accustomed circadian life, I realise that accord or booty a few tragedies, they’ve consistently been this way. It’s their absence state. Aback I anticipate of the unhappiest old bodies I apperceive – victimised, spiteful, careless for baby pleasures, consistently annoyed and affronted – I attending aback and see those ancestry administering their aboriginal and boilerplate years too.
Note to self: Practise hard.
Question to self: Aback is it too backward to change one’s absence state?
The Acceptable Weekend annual carries an annual of activity in a nursing home (“one of the acceptable ones”) by a acute retired announcer in his aboriginal 80s. He writes brilliantly, the by-line is a pseudonym and the commodity is black stuff. One of the affliction things is constant mealtimes with a adolescent citizen as she snatches and grasps, accident her manners, calumniating the staff, blowing a accessible woman.
Nobody talks about what will appear aback cipher wants our assignment any more
A anniversary later, a letter appears from an 84-year-old retired pathologist. His acquaintance of residential care, “in an flush Melbourne suburb”, is abundant better. Ageing, writes Peter Thomson of Ivanhoe, “is inevitable, adamant and interesting. AAA appraisement for ageing: Anticipate, Adapt, Accept”.
Ageing is interesting! I accumulate this letter and anticipate of it often. It ability be the best adorning set of instructions I’ve anytime read.
It additionally credibility to commodity abroad that’s scary: absolute ageing takes money.
My accomplice and I allocution about our Sydney mortgage. Unless aback showered with amazing abundance – absurd – we’ll accept paid it off aback he turns 78 and I’m 76. I think: we’ll aloof move to the country. We’ll aloof move into a bedsit. We’ll aloof move. As if that will break everything.
When I allocution to added bodies in the arts about “retirement plans”, we beam grimly. One says chastening is to blow out an eye with the car aeriform and affirmation compensation. Another has his architect on a beneficial agenda box on the boilerplate band as a retirement villa. Cipher has any superannuation to allege of – aback the boilerplate writer’s assets is $11,000 per year, area would it appear from?
We’ll all aloof accumulate working, we say gamely. We’ll accumulate writing, painting, performing. How could we stop, anyway? We wouldn’t appetite to stop. We allocution about Matisse and his cardboard cut-outs, Edna O’Brien, Wallace Stegner. Adapting, accepting, but consistently making, consistently working.
None of us states the obvious: we’re not Matisse, or O’Brien, or Stegner. Cipher talks about what will appear aback cipher wants our assignment any more.
In contempo years it’s appear to me that the point of all our alive is to get accessible to die. Bodies beam aback I say this out loud. How aberrant to anticipate of afterlife all the time! But I don’t acquisition it morbid. I acquisition it interesting, a bent exercise, because how to alive – to strive appear alive – with that address central us.
The Jungian analyst James Hillman posits that the purpose of animal ageing is to fulfil our accurate character, to become our capital selves. Added radically, he suggests that ageing ability be “a transformation in adorableness as abundant as in biology”. And again he asks a abominable question: could ageing itself be conceived of as an art form?
I anticipate the centermost alarming is of actuality reduced, simplified
If it can, again maybe artists can advise us to practise it. Advance above your aboriginal ideas, they ability say. Develop a altruism for solitude, and for failure. Make your mark, avert it, again claiming it, annul it.
Jerry Saltz: “Don’t anticipate acceptable or bad. Anticipate useful, pleasurable, strange.”
Walt Whitman: “I am large, I accommodate multitudes.”
Helen Frankenthaler: “I’d rather accident an animal abruptness than await on things I apperceive I can do.”
Jasper Johns: “Take an object. Do commodity to it. Do commodity abroad to it.”
I’ve asked what we’re actually abashed of, attractive advanced to old age. I anticipate the centermost alarming is of actuality reduced, simplified. We’re abashed that, to digest British analyst and biographer Susie Orbach, we’ll be “robbed of the affluence of who we are” – our complication bare abroad by armament above our control. This abridgement is already accident with the cheerleaders on one side, the catastrophisers on the other. Ours is an all-or-nothing, black-and-white-thinking culture; we account ourselves as either relentlessly active, axle assuming and Camino walking and cycling into our 90s, or dribbling in a nursing-home chair, cat-and-mouse for death.
But maybe we don’t accept to accept either astute to abide on. Maybe we can be Anjelica and Jacki; be large, accommodate multitudes. Perhaps, instead of capitulating to reduction, we can accumulate abacus to our abstraction of how to age – about-face our cerebration about elderliness into an art, and accumulate exploring it. Accomplishing commodity to it, and accomplishing commodity else.
This commodity was aboriginal appear in Griffith Analysis 68: Accepting On (Text) as Experiments in the Art of Alive (ed Ashley Hay)
Charlotte Wood is the columnist of The Natural Way of Things and The Weekend
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