We live in a society that seems to value youth (although not necessarily young people!). A fortune is spent on various ways of trying to make us look and feel younger. Whether or not that is money well spent is questionable, of course. Is it mainly another way of consumer capitalism getting us to spend our money? Well, it certainly fits with the idea that, if you want to make a lot of money, sell people things that they have to keep coming back for more of.
Trying to hold back ageing is like Canute trying to hold back the tide. Wouldn’t it make far more sense to just accept that every day we create a new yesterday and therefore have one less tomorrow? Is it ageing we fear and want to fend off or is it death? Or perhaps it is both? Fearing ageing reflects to a large extent our ageist society that devalues old age. Even though people are often much happier and settled in old age than in earlier life, old age tends to get stereotyped as a time of infirmity and inability. The reality, of course, is far more complex than this and, while there are clearly problems and challenges associated with old age, we hear far less about the pleasures and the achievements of old age.
Ageing is part of living, and so if we are afraid of ageing, we are afraid of living. And perhaps that is where the fear of death comes in. The idea that we live in a ‘death-denying’ society is not a new one. This again reflects our tendency to value youth so highly. And this is a pity, of course, because trying to pretend that death is not part of life is a pretty fruitless undertaking. It means living a lie and, more than that, losing out on the benefits of valuing our days, of making something of our time – as time, in the end, is all we have. Knowing that life is finite can help us treasure the time we do have, rather than fritter it away under the illusion (delusion?) that we are immortal.
Some people oversimplify this message. They try to work on the basis that you should live every day as if it your last. ‘Try’ is the key word here because, of course, you can’t live that way. Partying every day, making no plans for the future, living as if there is no tomorrow is not a recipe for quality of life. You will soon find yourself in considerable difficulties if you take this simplistic advice seriously.
What is much wiser, of course, is to be realistic. Accept that ageing is part of living and don’t let ageist stereotypes fool you into thinking that only younger people can be happy, productive, vibrant and living worthwhile lives. Ageism is, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, as a society, we devalue ageing and older people, we create discrimination and make old age a less positive time of life, which then fuels the ageist stereotype that ageing is something to fear (hence the futile attempts to defy ageing through all sorts of pills and potions). Futile for the people buying them, but lucrative for the people selling them.
Sadly, a lot of people never reach old age. What this means is that we should celebrate getting older, because every day that we get older is a day that we have lived. The alternative to ageing is, of course, not one to be recommended. If we are constantly trying to hold back the flow of time, then we are not appreciating that time – we are wasting precious moments. Old age is supposed to be a time of wisdom, but perhaps we need the wisdom sooner than that to realise that worshipping youth is a mug’s game.