The average man or woman feels and behaves in a variety of different fashions for about 70 years and then metamorphoses into an old person. And an old person is a different animal altogether. Old age is a foreign country.
The metamorphosis goes well beyond the expected changes in skin texture and prostate intrusiveness. It's much worse than that. The main change old age brings about is a drastic loss of personality and individuality, if the media and prevailing culture are to be believed. Regardless of whether a given person is a thoughtful intellectual, an aggressive executive, a psychopathic torturer, or a mellow prostitute, when old age arrives, he or she will simply turn into a geriatric caricature, devoid of all the colour and grit that had characterised its younger version.
Jake Harwood, a Professor of Communication in Arizona, studied the frequency with which different age groups featured in television dramas and found that older people were grossly under-represented. Predictably, the 20 to 30 year olds and their persistent and never-ending fallings in and out of love occupy the airwaves much more often than the vicissitudes of the old. And we also know that when the old do turn up in TV dramas and films, they are often represented in negative and stereotyped ways: they are either wicked or stupidly benevolent, often moribund and almost always peripheral. To be honest, I personally feel much less bothered by the negativity than by the flat and predictable stereotypes, even when these are apparently benign.
I mention the apparently benign stereotypes because there is a new caricature of a socially desirable version of old age that is gradually taking the place of the evil witch. These new fictitious old people are mischievous, don't give a damn about what anybody else thinks, speak their own mind at all times regardless of the consequences, appear to be generally disinhibited and generally behave much younger than their years. It is the Golden Girls and Waiting for God syndrome. Or Billy Connolly in just about any of his recent film roles.
Influential people tell us that age is a state of mind and that one can stay young by simply doing young kinds of things, like parachuting during the day and then partying all night. Mind you, they also tell us that old people are very important for society because they contribute a great deal to it, as if the value of a given age group in society could be measured by their productivity output. From that point of view, children, who cost us a lot of money and therefore have negative productivity figures, must be worse than worthless.
The common factor amongst the caricatures of the old, as in all caricatures, is their flatness, their two-dimensionality, the loss of individuality and personality that they inevitably imply. The bad stereotypes are unashamedly negative, whereas the newer, more benign stereotypes tend to be condescending and infantalising. These clichés seem to suggest that old age is an affliction that deserves sympathy from the rest of society. In the same way victims of an act of
unfair aggression are automatically assumed to be morally good, old people appear to be seen as worthy of compassion.
The stereotypes place old age somewhere else, in a different plane, where human individual dimensions don't normally apply. Perhaps this serves a protective function: as long as "old" is somewhere else, one can stay truly young by simply not going there. The problem with this -and it is a serious problem- is that all these distortions imply that being old is, well, a bad thing.
We know better, of course. We know that older people are multi-dimensional and that they are just as morally bad or morally good, exciting or boring, greedy or generous, cowardly or brave, as anybody else. We also know that being old is not a bad thing. Not necessarily, anyway. According to Cicero, the Roman statesman, judgement and force of character are at their pinnacle in old age. He was only 63 when he died, so he never reached what he presumably expected to be his intellectual zenith. He must have felt disappointed in his deathbed.
For some, old age is the best stage in their lives, when at last there is nothing to be proved and no duty to provide. So old age may be a time to enjoy, and yet I wouldn't recommend parachuting during the day and then partying all night, not just because these strenuous activities wouldn't help your osteoporosis or your dodgy ticker, but also because "old" is a thing in itself, an absolute, not a bad version of "young". The old don't need to beat the young at their own game, they've already been there and done that. And the perpetual pretension of youth is just another cliché constructed by a gerontophobic culture.
"Old age is like a plane flying through a storm. Once you're aboard, there's nothing you can do", said Golda Meir. Well, there is: you can relax and enjoy the ride. Enjoy it in your own, very personal and distinctive way.