I’ve never actually seen this headline but I can easily imagine it on a magazine cover: “Getting old: is it a poor lifestyle choice?”. The fact that ageing is inevitable– the alternative being even less appealing, of course – is barely acknowledged in our youth-obsessed culture. People are living a lot longer, getting to ages beyond the reach of all but the most favoured individuals for most of recorded history. But it hasn’t been accompanied by a revolution in how we think about the elderly.
This year’s John Lewis Christmas advert, made in association with Age UK, features a lonely old man living on the Moon. A German supermarket chain has come up with something a great deal starker; it’s the story of an elderly man, sick of being on his own at Christmas, who fakes his own death to trick his adult children into visiting. Too many elderly people are on their own at Christmas but I’m not sure whether such adverts have useful practical effects or confirm fears about getting older.
I was reminded of all this last week when I read about a court case involving a middle-aged woman who insisted on the right to refuse life-saving treatment. The woman, referred to only as C, died last weekend at the age of 50 after refusing to undergo kidney dialysis because she didn’t want to become “poor, ugly or old”. C was absolutely clear that she didn’t want treatment, prompting the NHS trust which was looking after her to seek a court ruling last month.
Her doctors argued that she had a “dysfunction of the mind” which rendered her unable to make decisions about treatment, but a judge ruled in her favour. He acknowledged that many people would be horrified by C’s decision but said she was “sovereign” in respect of her own body and mind. More controversially, he offered a character sketch of C as someone who had “led a life characterised by impulsive and self-centred decision-making without guilt or regret”.
The judge said she had had four husbands and a number of affairs, had spent money recklessly and been “an entirely reluctant and at times completely indifferent mother” to her three daughters. Then came the most eye-catching part of this unflattering portrait: “It is clear that during her life C has placed a significant premium on youth and beauty and on living a life that, in C’s words, ‘sparkles’.” Naturally this phrase made headlines while one of the most significant facts – that C had damaged her kidneys in a failed suicide attempt after being diagnosed with breast cancer – was relegated almost to an aside.
I’m still not sure whether this distressing case is about someone who didn’t want to get old or an extreme reaction to the prospect of having to undergo treatment for cancer. And it took me a while to work out why the judge’s remarks, which came down on the side of C’s right to make her own decision, are so troubling. It’s partly because they characterise C as a narcissist without any reference to the culture that encourages such behaviour, but it isn’t just that. Some of the things we fear about living into our 70s and 80s – being short of money and on the receiving end of poor medical care – have some basis in reality. Two of my elderly female relatives have been misdiagnosed after falls; in one case doctors missed a broken wrist and in the other, astonishingly, a broken neck.
The best-selling feminist author Erica Jong has just published a rather messy novel, Fear of Dying, which is as much about fear of getting older as it is about death. Her heroine, who has dying parents and a sick husband, is frank about her yearning for youth: “I hate, hate, hate getting older.” The novel unintentionally exposes the fantasies of a generation of wealthy, successful women who have no means of dealing with something they never expected to happen to them: “We thought we would get better and better forever.”
You might object, at his point, that fear of getting older isn’t specific to women. Men have anxieties about loneliness and ill health as well, but I think there are two circumstances which bear particularly heavily on the female half of the human race. While men are living longer, homes for the elderly are overwhelmingly populated by women who are now in their 80s and 90s; they grew up at a time when men were still valued more than women, a fact that has a powerful if unconscious impact on how we view older people. The other is that ageing women – a phrase often used as an insult – are treated with a lack of respect that verges on cruelty, as the following comparison illustrates.
Hillary Clinton is 68. She’s a hugely experienced political operator, a former Secretary of State in Barack Obama’s government, and is making her second bid to be the Democrats’ presidential candidate. It’s prompted a slew of articles asking whether she’s too old for the job; someone has even posted a montage of photographs online, inviting viewers to “watch Hillary Clinton age 50 years in just over a minute”.
Jeremy Corbyn is only two years younger than Clinton. He will be 71 at the time of the next general election, but his age isn’t an issue. Here’s The Daily Telegraph, no fan of the Labour leader, making the point: “It is Jeremy Corbyn’s age that makes him seem fresh.” When will I ever read a sentence like that about an older woman?
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies