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DISPATCH: I Asked the Elderly For Advice on Getting Old ... They Said Emigrate
Posted on November 23, 2002 by Anita

(This article appeared in The Mirror UK Nov. 22, 2002.)

Being made up as an elderly person was easily the most physically demanding of the three programmes. It was uncomfortable, bordering on pain.

The make-up artists wrinkled my face by stretching parts of it and then applying a glue, like icing sugar on to a cake. Then my features were slowly faded out. Colour disappeared from my hair and my face, until my skin looked grey. Every strand of hair was wrapped into curlers to keep it tight against my head to fit the wig as tightly as possible.

Three hours later, I looked into the mirror and saw my 87-year-old mother looking back at me. A woman who avoids looking in the mirror and hates photographs of herself. Who looks older than she feels. I thought: "I suppose it's preferable to being dead."

The elderly programme was also the most poignant for me. Making it became a kind of dress rehearsal for what's going to happen to me later on.

Like a step into the future. I was overwhelmed by the inevitability of it all. Someone told me that an old person is someone 15 years old than you. And here I was, confronting her.

I turned 60 only the other day. I've noticed some changes. I've suddenly started wearing lipstick, maybe to rebel against fading away, maybe as a deflection from the ageing process.

But in the straps and weights they gave me to mimic the restricted movement an elderly person experiences, I couldn't turn my head and could barely move at all.

I also tried some special yellow glasses that blur the vision. In daylight you can make out shapes but at night you can barely see.

I found it kind of scary thinking of how many elderly people drive.

The only thing I disagreed with was the dowdy clothing. I wouldn't have been seen dead in any of it.

I think women of my generation are reinventing themselves as the years pass. We'll keep our own sense of style even when we're old. Instead, when I looked at the elderly person I'd become, I saw someone who had no joy in her life, no laughter. But it did the job. And I loved the shoes - so comfortable that it was like walking on air.

I like wrinkles. They are the geography of a person's life. Anti-ageing creams, in any case, are a nonsense. The only real way to get rid of wrinkles is to slice the face open and pull.

But I discovered that, despite all the make-up, it's what you wear and how you talk that really make you seem old. They were the other tricks I had to learn. I became this invisible person. No one sees you, nobody wants to help.

In London, everyone is moving too fast. The expressions I garnered might have been different in a smaller town, but as I carried these heavy bags, people were just rushing past. Maybe the eighth deadly sin should be speed?

I'd had a romantic idea that everyone loves and respects the elderly. To me, being elderly is about being wise and knowing, a fount of wisdom. I have never seen being old as a physical state of being, only a state of knowing.

But this doesn't seem to be the way young people see the elderly at all. The young people I met while I was dressed as an elderly person were rude, nasty, vile.

I could have smacked them round the chops. By the end of the experiment I was ready to bring back the whip and the cane.

I was carrying extremely heavy bags and baskets, clearly struggling, yet not one person stopped to help me. I stood, confused and disorientated, at busy crossings and not a soul offered to help me cross. I could have walked straight under a car and nobody would have stopped me.

Every time I crossed a road, the irritation of the people in the cars was almost palpable, especially with young drivers. They were banging the steering wheel with anger and frustration.

When I asked one teenage girl why she and her friends didn't offer me a seat on the bus, she said: "I've been shopping all day. My legs are tired." She was about 14. I was dressed as an elderly woman - so realistic that my own mother didn't recognise me. Yet they wouldn't offer me a seat.

When I asked elderly people for their advice about growing old, one of them said: "Emigrate." We don't treat our elderly well in this country. "There is no respect" - I heard that a million times.

I had expected that younger people would always get up to offer you a seat. That someone might take you by the arm and help you across the road. Instead, I encountered rudeness and sheer invisibility.

Many of the old people I spoke to said they carried a walking stick not for balance but for protection. Society has got more violent for old people.

Abject loneliness is all around. The vulnerability is at all levels. The loss of independence gets greater every day. I now have to wash my mother and ablute her body, the way someone will some day have to ablute mine.

The more time I spent with elderly people, the more I realised their courtesy and civility is a far cry from modern Britain. Their gentleness of language is being lost - their words and expressions, similes and metaphors. It reminded me of how English is spoken in India - in this careful, polite way.

The biggest taboo I discovered was sex after 60. All I could get on this from women was that all the men were always dozing off.

There is an economic divide between the "pension-poor" and the better off. The vulnerability of the poorer pensioners was made clear to me again and again.

We have an ageing population in Britain and, really, we don't know what to do with it. We don't even know what to call it - Third Age, elderly, old age, pensioners. We need to find a language that's celebratory.

The most positive thing I found was the number of sports clubs providing activities for the elderly. Yoga, tai-chi - these Eastern practices are magnificent ways to keep supple, feel good, avoid loneliness.

I found that elderly women have more skill at reinventing themselves than men. Widowhood can sometimes be liberating. After years of providing support to a male breadwinner, they emerge from the shadows to take control of their own lives.

On the whole, my mother's theory of ageing seemed to be borne out. In your 30s you're feathering your nest and looking for your partner in life; in your 40s you get rid of all the sh**s in your life; in your 50s and 60s you're obsessed with food as a source of pleasure and comfort, and with health.

Elderly women are prolific readers. But it was their stories I loved. Older people have such great stories. We should be gathering and protecting them, not letting them die out.

As we get older, we localise ourselves more, watching our kids and grandkids grow up, preparing ourselves for the death of loved ones. I've learned from my own mother not to interfere, especially with the raising of my grandchildren.

She also taught me that death changes as you get older. My fear of death when the kids were growing up was because I hadn't done enough. Now, at 60, that has changed.

My mother is no longer afraid of dying. Because she's a romantic, she believes she will be going to meet my father, who is floating around up there waiting for her. She has already taken care of her own funeral. She's got cha-cha music, a red chiffon dress.

She is incredibly independent. I've had a lovely little flat for her built next to our house and she never goes in there. She likes noise and movement. We're too quiet. I recently asked her if she'd come up and stay. She said: "No, I'd rather have a stroke than live with you for a weekend, it's so boring."

She's full of great wisdom. When you're really old, she says, you want to be able to look back and say: "I've done the best I could do." She's right. I'm not going to my grave wishing I'd done something or said something.

We're living an extra two years per decade. By 2036, there will be 39,000 people over 100 and 11 million over 75. What will you do with us? That's the question.

For me, it's like the woman in the documentary, says: "I just don't want to be a burden on my family." I think that is truly wise.

But it's also worth remembering what the British writer Dorothy Sayers had to say: "A woman of advancing old age is unstoppable by any earthly force."

As far as I'm concerned, that means I can do exactly what I want.

"Skin Deep" premeires on the Discovery Channel UK on Nov. 25.

Copyright 2002 MGN Ltd.
The Mirror

Topic : Aging
Posted By : Anita
Posted On : November 23, 2002



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2 results found

Re : I Asked the Elderly For Advice on Getting Old ... They Said Emigrate
By Tamara Beall on July 25, 2005

The article is too true,its a sad commentary on the sign of the times.

Re : I Asked the Elderly For Advice on Getting Old ... They Said Emigrate
By A Robinson on June 6, 2005

Too true!

I'm a 'young' Australian and it worries me how others treat our elderly and how I'll be treated one day.

In the meantime my grandmother is 85, more active than I am, and has a wonderful social life with friends she meets through Probus and Legacy (you should hear them all talk about how hunky Keanu Reeves is - what a scream)! In many cases they are not the vulnerable people that many younger generations assume them to be.


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