One evening recently, I dropped in on my beautiful grandmother for a 6 o’clock G & T. We had just poured the drinks when the phone rang. Her very dear friend of over fifty years had just passed away. Being ninety-one, she gets a lot of these calls lately. We drank a small ginny toast, and she tried to tell me a story from their young days in 1950’s Windhoek, involving a dinner party at her friend’s home, and some escapade that resulted in most of them falling into the swimming pool. She couldn’t recall most of the details, but giggled quietly at the memory.
Being old is hard. Unlike being most other ages, almost nobody around you has been there and knows what it’s like. No-one has come out the other side to tell you it will all be OK. Obviously, I’m not actually old (unless you take the perspective of my nieces and nephews, who have only recently promoted me from twelve to eighteen). I still have time to take all that good advice going around to ensure myself perfect skin, a pristine digestive tract, no diabetes, no heart disease, and a blissful, financially secure retirement on a beach somewhere with Richard Gere. But no matter how many nasties you dodge, sooner or later it happens: time, and gravity, and the loss of things we’d rather keep: vision, hearing, mental acuity, driver’s license, independence. That might represent an achievement (i.e. not dying of a whole lot of other things on the way), but it will still be bloody hard.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about how to prepare for that. Here are my thoughts.
- Pick your wrinkles
They’re going to happen anyway, unless you opt for technologies that will make you look like Barbie after a close encounter with the fire. Rather have scrunchy eyes from smiling a lot than miserable sour-mouth cheek droop. I have an established forehead furrow from concentration, puzzlement and concern, but I feel the state of the world warrants this. Anyone with an untroubled brow is, I feel, either supremely out of touch or over-assisted by the medical profession.
- Be mindful of how you think about older people now
Consciously or not, we judge ourselves at a given age by how we thought about people that age when we were young and stupid. A friend just turned 35, and over the birthday cake she remarked, “It’s not that life isn’t good. It’s just not how I thought it would be by now.” When she was 22, she assumed that at 35 she would be married, with two kids, an SUV and sizeable sleep debt. She probably looked askance at 35-year-old single women, regardless of their awesome jobs, property portfolios and travel opportunities. Somewhere inside her head, that ignorant 22-year-old is still giving her stick.
- Be friends with people much older and much younger than you.
Point #3 helps with point #2. If you actually know people who are 35 (or 55) before you get there, you have a chance to edit your expectations based on evidence. Pick role models. This year I’ve been on two really fabulous holidays with friends who are all over fifty. Not only are they past the all-consuming nappy-and-school-fees years, but they have twenty years’ experience on me in having a stonkingly good time.
Younger friends are the corollary of this: you get to role-model older-person awesomeness. They can keep you young by explaining things like Pokemon Go and letting you play with their Lego. And you get to laugh indulgently at the ignorance of youth and appreciate not having to go through high school ever again.
- Be nice to old people now.
They can be slow, and we get annoyed, especially if they’re in the car ahead of us. But at least they’re still out there. If other drivers were accommodating, older people could keep on doing their thing longer without fear of soccer-mom roadrage or persecution by Audi. I’m thinking of starting a bumper sticker campaign: “Senior driver, please be patient. If you’re lucky one day this will be you.” I reckon if we start now, by the time that is me (probably still driving the trusty Elvis), the roads will be safe for pensioner-kind.
- Be nice, full stop.
When you are old, your filters fail. Or you just stop caring what other people think. If the only thing that has kept you a tolerable human being is social convention, heaven help anyone who has to live with you once that’s gone. CS Lewis suggested that heaven vs hell is simply oneself continuing for eternity. If you are a mean and miserable individual at thirty, by eighty (or whenever your eyesight, sphincters and regard for public opinion fail) you will no longer be able to hide the fact. The night shift at the nursing home will probably ignore your 3am call for a bedpan. If on the other hand you are deep down, gracious, gentle, kindly and contented, your lapses in name-recall and spoon-to-mouth aim are more likely to be tolerated. And I am fairly sure you will be much happier.
- Get an African insurance policy
This is a real thing. Even in places where old people can get home care and assisted living provided by people other than their relatives, you still need family. I’m acutely aware of the blessing of being one of four kids to relatively healthy, together and financially secure parents (who can still pay for their own helicopter rescues when they’ve fallen off another mountain). Many of my friends are supporting their parents already, or will likely be soon. Now, I’m not really in a position to have four kids of my own, but I have taken the precaution of being a really awesome aunt. I reckon early imprinting that associates me with biscuit-baking, blanket forts and birthday outings to City Rock will pay off later. Surely at least one of the seven little darlings will have pity on me when I am old and batty.
There’s a lot to be said for making peace with our own limitations, physical and temporal. We’re not very good at death any more, and perhaps that’s what makes getting old even harder than it needs to be. Maybe wrinkles would be more acceptable if botox were not an option. Dying would be dealt with better if the biomedical establishment didn’t keep insisting it to be unnecessary.
My resolution: embrace ageing. Also, go hug an old person. And drink more gin…