Lynne Segal is a social psychologist with deep roots in feminism and left politics who writes about complex social issues in an accessible way. Here she takes on the subject of old age ‘to create richer narratives around it’ and to look at contradictory fears and emotions aroused as bodies and minds grow older.
This is not a book about gerontology, or dementia cures. Segal assembles her evidence by using literary and cultural accounts – the later poetry of Adrienne Rich, Rosalind Belben’s Dreaming of Dead People, fragments from John Dollimore and Michael Cobb – and adds psychological and philosophical insights.
Though the book is broad in scope, the choice of issues is somewhat arbitrary. Segal deals particularly well with the lone elderly. Though being alone can be exquisitely painful, it can open space for important individual searches. Segal considers sexual desire, arguing that women, more and more, are meeting their needs, turning to themselves, other women or celibacy with less anxiety and fuss.
The destructive effects of ill health, disability and poverty are given less sure treatment. Though inadequate financial and other resources are mentioned as determining factors, there is no real investigation of what this means in practice. Similarly, there is no account of older women activists raising issues of care and dependency in broader politics (for example, the Older Feminist Network, Pensioners’ Forums, Women in Black). Without this, the book’s question ‘how do we live our lives?’ can only be answered partially. What’s needed is to ground this cultural and undeniably rich literary material more securely in people’s lived experience.
Many of those whose writings are reviewed have experienced the visible destruction of ideals and innovations they fought for earlier in life. Segal deals firmly with attacks on ‘baby boomers’, who are not all privileged, and argues that many of her generation wanted more permanent forms of distribution, not benefits for a particular cohort. Recent research has indeed shown that the most telling gulfs in our society are between the rich and poor of any age, not young and old.
This is a valuable and challenging book. It opens up a terrain and invites others to fill in the spaces and engage with the issues of public policy, which if not stated directly are implicit throughout.