Several events have converged to make me think about the the eighth and ninth decades. My brother turned 80 last week, I saw the film "Amour", and I learned of the death of a cousin, at 86, following a fall.
I also returned to reading Susan Jacoby's well-researched, powerful "Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age".
Though tough, unsentimental, unsparing, I recommend both the film and book as preparation for the eighties and beyond, or for relationships with those there now. Both refute the myth that by the time we hit the eighties, if we get that far, the challenges of old age will be conquered through science and, if we have to wait, expensive creams as a stop-gap.
The facts are different. If turning (as I am) 65 this year, Jacoby reports that I have a 50% chance of a) incurring some form of degenerative brain disease, or b) spending significant time in a nursing home in my remaining years. And, as they say, nobody gets out alive. Much as boomers would like, we will not be centenarians dancing on cruise ships with our bionic body parts, memories preserved by brain games.
Dad used to repeat the adage that "old age is not for sissies". It takes inner strength, a courage to face the losses, whether of your favourite glasses, your balance, or your dearest friends. You need strength to head out for a walk even if you're aching, to form new habits, reconcile your dreams with the reality of what really happened.
Strength cannot be developed without acceptance, and acceptance isn't forthcoming if a woman refuses (like Goldie Hawn) to be called "grandma" (or some variant), when she is one.
Denying you are where you are in the process of living subverts the tasks of each stage, and you end up an immature 80-something. Believe me, I've known some; they and the people around them are miserable.
Those on the threshold of entering "the young old" stage (according to Jacoby, 65 to 80) are preoccupied with their changing looks, but such worries subvert the gathering of inner strength that we need to go the distance.
Charlotte Rampling (67) spoke recently about the urge to surgically re-set the clock in an interview:
You've got to wait," she says. "You've got not to panic, not to be
frightened, and not to change your face. You need your face to grow with
you," she says. You mean plastic surgery? "Yeah, because then people
don't know what age you are. You look a certain age but there is a
problem with that if women can't live with their faces as they're
growing into them. There's always a frightening point when your face
starts to change, and that's when you want to change it. But if you go
through that change – and it lasts quite a long time, maybe 10 years –
then you find actually that you've grown into an older face."
(Retrieved from The Independent, April 8, 2012)
Yes, Rampling's magnificent bone structure has given her a position of privilege, but whether beauties or not, what would happen if we rejected the idea that there is something shameful about wrinkles, sags or looking the age we are?
A lot less self-denigration and unproductive worry, for one thing.
Looks are only a superficial, minor part of the journey, but I was heartened to see in "Amour", the co-star, Emanuelle Riva, with character and beauty abundant in her 85-year-old face. In an interview with Anna Tatarska, published on the web site Fandor, Riva said:
"The most important thing is not to fear life. One needs to keep calm
when facing old age. Fear destroys everything. You have to experience
friendship and love with such fullness and tenderness as in Michael
Haneke’s film. I mean real love, not first affection or being enchanted.
If we manage to direct our thoughts in this direction and receive
similar impulses, we will get peace and happiness in return."
Jacoby would say that Riva is a lucky exception, a super-elder. But I hope she wins that Oscar for the magnificence of her performance. And if not, she will have won the admiration of many for her second-harvest artistry.