Although retired, I seldom talk about ageing or being old. Maybe with close friends and family but infrequently, if ever, in a wider social setting. We seem to skirt around it, while all experiencing changes in ourselves and the way that we have to live.
Ageing affects us in different ways. It was being offered a seat on the bus that first made me conscious of the way I was seen by other people. Even though at the time I never thought I looked as if I needed it, I always accepted the offer. It was also my increasingly arthritic hands, making me incapable of unscrewing lids and opening bottles. This became a major problem in lockdown when the cork in the bottle proved unmoveable. If there wasn’t anyone around in the neighbouring flats, I was forced to go into the street to accost the next passer-by to tackle the problem. A close friend found the solution: the battery-operated corkscrew.
Walking slowly now with two sticks for balance produces a confrontation with reality about age. Having walked on hills all my life, the inability to get up a slight incline should have been devastating. Yet walking at the pace of a small child has provided me with alternative pleasures. As so many discovered in lockdown, streets are littered with small plants struggling in the cracks of every pavement. Just this morning, trailing down the hill to get milk, I found shepherd’s purse, chickweed and ivy-leaved toadflax, with a straggle of beautifully scented autumn honeysuckle. The delights of identifying plants, stimulated as a child by walking with my mum, has been strongly reaffirmed.
However, getting up stairs is now harder, parcels are heavier, crossing streets more dangerous. We are all increasingly hampered by declining muscle strength, and I am certainly not determined to maintain muscular toning with insane pumping iron. Becoming quadrupedal while walking is no real hardship, although I am more circumspect about going on demonstrations if there is any possibility of having to run. But I still swim well, having been a regular swimmer in the Hampstead ladies’ pond in both winter and summer.
Gains in vieillesse
Thinking about this, I found Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age, which she published in 1970 when she was 60. She wrote it realising old people were largely invisible, nothing having been written on vieillesse (old age).
For her, class is the major determinant in the ways that people age. Throughout history the poor invariably die before they reach old age. I was brought up short to read that a vast proportion of people in the past felt hungry for much of their lives. While wealth does not guarantee a long life, it certainly provides the basis of longevity. She considers old age in different European societies, ethnographically and historically. Obviously, those who became old and could more easily leave some individual mark were the rich: rulers, writers, poets, sculptors, who led cushioned lives based on the exploitation of the poor.
Becoming quadrupedal while walking is no real hardship, although I am more circumspect about going on demonstrations if there is any possibility of having to run
With the emergence of capitalism and state formations from the 16th century onwards, small occasional advances were made through western Europe. But these paled in comparison with the dramatic increases in life expectancy during the 19th and 20th centuries, which saw new urban water supplies and sewage systems followed by the introduction of antibiotics in the mid 1900s.
It was my generation who garnered the advantages of a dramatic and radical redistribution of resources through the welfare state. The NHS, welfare services for young and old alike, free education from nursery to university, old people’s homes in almost all local authorities. We were the recipients, those of us who are now old.
Age and erasure
What support exists today for old people in the UK? State pensions are among the worst in Europe. Pensioner poverty is one of the highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) with 15.3 per cent in poverty in 2019.
On a wider canvas, unlike those areas of Europe where neoliberalism was a late arrival, we have inadequate services for old people. In Spain for example, funding by both regions and central government provides places for social activities – leisure activities, welfare services or subsidised cafes. Here, local authorities with their severely eroded budgets can do little. And we know too well that the crucial service of care, previously largely provided through local authority-run homes, was trashed by privatisation models.
While there is some verbal genuflection towards the issue of social isolation, there is a huge silence about old people and sex. The erotic dimension of a person is ‘private’ and ignored after middle age, and there is no discussion about libido and desire of older people. Arguing that there is a seeming acceptance that young people display their sex drive as a need, de Beauvoir says the older person is looking for pleasure or companionship and delight in another in a unique manner. But we do not talk about it.
De Beauvoir finishes her book with the following: ‘If old age is not to be an absurd parody of the former life and that to go on pursuing ends that give our existence meaning – a devotion to individuals, groups or causes, social, political, intellectual or creative work – in old age we should still wish to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in on ourselves.’
‘The crime of our society is the treatment that it inflicts upon the majority during their youth and their maturity. It prefabricates the maimed and wretched state that is theirs when they are old,’ she continues. Yet once we are aware ‘what the state of the aged really is, we cannot satisfy ourselves with calling for a more generous “old age policy”, higher pensions, decent housing and organised leisure. It is the whole system which is at issue and our claim cannot be otherwise than radical – change life itself.’ Reason enough to keep active and engaged politically.