December 4, 2011

NEW ZEALAND: Age of Enlightenment

AUCKLAND, New Zealand / Sunday Star Times / Columnists / December 4, 2011

I've labelled them "old but OK"

By Rosemary McLeod

Vivienne Westwood
OLD BUT OK: Designer Vivienne Westwood is still going full steam ahead at 70.

"I'm 75," a friend said to me a while back, and then added, "I'm not sure what that means." Me neither. Now in her 80s, she's energetic, interested in the world, and she's a great cook. I can't say, though, that she doesn't seem old. I know she is; she remembers times I never knew and brings different reference points to the present, but beyond that, how is she supposed to see herself – as inferior, irrelevant, or maybe pitiable because she's lived so long? And how am I supposed to see her?

I have several friends in their 80s, more who are in their 70s. That might make me weird in Britain, where a European Social Survey of 55,000 people across 28 countries has just found the greatest intergenerational split, with half of all Britons admitting they don't have a friend over 70, most believing old age equals weakness and unhappiness, and two out of five people saying they've experienced a lack of respect because of their age.

It follows that more people in Britain believe ageism is a serious problem than anywhere else in Europe – and Britons believe "old" begins at 59. The Greeks, by contrast, think it's 68, which is Mick Jagger's age.

"Generally, those in their 20s don't have contact outside the family with people in their 70s," professor Dominic Abrams, of Kent University, commented. "In places like Cyprus or Portugal there are spaces, squares or bars where people of all ages mix. Ageism [in the UK] is a problem that does need to be explored."

Maybe Maori have got it right with marae, where different generations mingle without awkwardness and age is respected as it is in traditional Asian and Pacific families. But I'm not sure about the rest of us.

We often shut old people away when they can no longer look after themselves, writing off their life experience as irrelevant because we're embarrassed, maybe, by their frailty. In the process we un-family ourselves, and make age seem fearful. This seems sad to me.

I was among old people a lot as a child, living with my grandmother. The competing, strong voices of my four great-aunts, her sisters, strove for conversational dominance on their visits; that rising and falling hum over tea and orange cake was the background to my early life. I felt, until a few years ago when the last of them died, that the world could not possibly continue without them, Aunty Mary with her golf and bowls, sharp Aunty Winnie, Aunty Doris with the loudest boom and Aunty Patty, the quietest. They seemed to me like pillars holding up the world in floral frocks and cardigans. It seemed that there was nothing they couldn't do.

I found it hard to believe when they became white-haired, crippled with arthritis and ill – though never demented – their spirit remained strong, even as they became frail, and their humour was still sardonic. "I've got news for you," one great-aunt said idly to her husband, both of them suffering from terminal cancer, "and it's all bad."

My mother, closer to them in age, saw things differently. She craved radical change, with an urgency old people have outgrown. She'd insist I take my cello home from boarding school to play for them, an equally agonising experience for both them and me. They'd talk through these forced musical interludes about the weather, potatoes and gallstones: you have to accept that old people won't be changing to please you. My mother wouldn't live long enough herself to prove the truth of that.

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For a while my grandmother was assistant matron of an old people's home. One holiday I stayed with her there, sharing her tiny bedroom at night, and idly amusing myself by day. Boarding school children – I was about 10 by then – soon lose their friends from home, and it didn't occur to anyone to find children for me to play with.

I was puzzled by the old people who lived there, sitting quietly in their chairs all day like living statues, barely talking and seldom bothering to read. They seemed like alarm clocks that someone had forgotten to wind – all but little Miss Selwyn, who was 90, wore wire-rimmed spectacles and walked out briskly with the resident cat each day.

The old women didn't complain when I laboriously picked out tunes on the piano from a pile of sheet music nobody ever played. A few of them once broke into Two Little Girls in Blue as I struck the notes with one finger – it was a bit like suddenly having your dolls come to life. Otherwise I read their magazines, absorbing advice on decor, grooming, cake decorating and romance. In the background, as time ticked slowly by, the matron was busy embezzling their bank accounts.

That image of old age – boredom, passivity, lack of stimulus, vulnerability – has stayed with me as an example of how not to go about it.

Like the British, we may believe old age has nothing going for it, but put anyone into an institution and they'll soon be compliant, show a lack of interest in what people have to say, and they'll stop talking. I could add, treat people as if they're almost dead, and they soon will be.

My older friends aren't boring, because they're never bored. They don't dwell in the past, where we have nothing in common, but in the present, where we're equal. What I like most about them is that they've given up trying to impress anyone – they are themselves, and relaxed about it, which puts both of us at ease. They may be cleverer and know more than me but they're clever enough not to remind me of it. People who don't have older people – and I don't mean relatives – as friends lose out on the pleasure of such delicate tact. What do they get out of mixing with much younger people? Maybe it's that you're not their child and you haven't locked them into the parental role of approval and disapproval forever. We all like to be accepted for what we are, not what someone else wishes we were.

Old age will be a reality for most of us. We'll blunder into it whether we like it or not, and have to cope.

Beside my desk, as a kind of touchstone, I keep clippings of older woman eccentrics who I've labelled "old but OK". French designer Andree Putman is there at 86, along with French knitwear designer Sonia Rykiel, 81. Iconic English designer Vivienne Westwood, 70, who just donated a million dollars to saving the planet, is there, too, along with equally iconic Zandra Rhodes, 71, who was last seen here with bright green hair. I'd be happy to be like any of them when – if – I reach their age. I'd be ecstatic, in the meantime, if any one of them should want to be my friend.

One in five New Zealanders will be aged 65 or older by 2031. By the late 2020s, a million New Zealanders will be over 65.

A 2008 Yale University study found people with a positive view of ageing live 7.5 years longer than people who look on it negatively.

Last month the Board of Age Concern New Zealand released a wish-list of topics it is encouraging researchers to explore. These include physical, mental and financial elder abuse, elder neglect, social isolation and income and health issues.

The Hope Foundation for Research on Ageing reports that poor home-based services, problems with IT and inadequate funding are key sticking points for district health boards trying to improve their services for the elderly.


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