Old is beautiful

All of us should be allowed to age proudly, happily and gracefully. But first, we need to change our perception of ‘old' people. By David Servan-Schreiber


Old is beautiful

Dennis has been invited to stay for the weekend by a friend of his parents; she is 80 years old. When they decide to go down to the beach a few miles away, she suggests they go by bike. Noticing his surprise, she challenges him: ‘Well, young man, do you think it might be too much for you?’

Paul has started working for a large family company. He’s told the boss is keen on international development, and personally covers five foreign territories. He also deals with his emails from 6am to 8am. Someone asks Paul if he jogs at all, because the boss is looking for a partner to prepare for the London marathon. When he finally meets the boss, Paul wonders whether he’s in the wrong office. Sitting behind the desk is a 70-year-old man.

We’ve all got mental perceptions when it comes to ‘old' people. We talk about ‘old codgers’, picture saggy breasts and erection problems, and can’t imagine a sex life after 65. When talking to an old person, we tend to speak louder and use simpler words — as if we were talking to a child. These attitudes affect the way the over-seventies see themselves.

Both of the old people described above share one thing in common: they don’t identify themselves with these images of old age. They rarely mention their age, but talk about their activities, their interests and their future plans.

At Yale University in the US, Professor Becca Levy is studying the influence of cultural stereotypes on the elderly to see how they affect their physical and intellectual functions. In a recent study, she proved that stereotypes directly affect people’s abilities and behaviour.

She has concluded that in cultures that value the elderly — such as China and Japan — there are fewer problems associated with memory loss. In an experiment, Levy measured the memory and walking speeds of a group of over-65-year-olds. She then flashed a series of words across a screen, too quickly for the mind to absorb them consciously. She tested her group again. After words such as ‘guide’, ‘educated’ or ‘wise’ came up, their memory capacity improved and they started to walk more quickly. By contrast, words such as ‘senile’ ‘decline’ and ‘lost’ had a negative effect on their memory and they started to walk more slowly.

When he reached the age of 70, my friend Nikos wrote a beautiful poem, in which he bade farewell to all the anxiety and worries of his youth, farewell to the question of whether he would find his place in the world, farewell to his judging and belittling of those around him. Instead, he welcomed the qualities he now appreciates within himself: kindness, gratitude and trust. He ends his poem on the lament, ‘Why could I not have been 70 years old all my life!

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