Ageism in the West can be traced back to Greek mythology. Ageing was considered hideous and dreadful in ancient Greece. “GERAS was the spirit (daimon) of old age, one of the malevolent spirits spawned by the goddess Nyx (Night). He was depicted as a tiny shrivelled up old man.”
The English language contains many expressions that degrade the elderly, for example, ‘There is no fool like an old fool. You cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Nothing good will come from an old man who still wants to dance. Age is a troublesome guest.’ And many more. In folklore and fairy tales, old women are the face of evil. They poison their enemies, roast or boil children and cast terrible spells on people.
Prejudices against older people are rife. Many assaults on the elderly have been reported in the U.S. Australia, Britain and in other countries. According to a 2014 report released by U.S. Department of Justice, between 2003-2013 136,720 violent crimes and 47,640 serious violent crimes were committed against them. One elderly person told me everyday ageism is expressed through negative body language and stereotyping. It is the psychological damage that she is worried about most, as they subconsciously internalise the culture of unfriendliness toward them and begin to believe things about themselves that are not true.
Pop psychology has created a preoccupation with the concept of the ‘inner child’ ever since puer aeternus (male) and puella aeterna (female) have entered the mainstream culture. The inner child has been blamed for self-sabotage and other destructive behaviour. Self-help books have cashed in on the parenting of the inner child and they haven’t stopped churning out one book after another. What if the tug at our sleeve was by our inner elder instead? Don’t we have both of them inside of us? Are we in denial, only acknowledging the ghost of one in our psyche but not the other?
Another person told me she believed aged care facilities in the West are a form of institutionalised degradation of the elderly. How do we feel living in a society where our end may indeed be ugly and tragic not by nature but by design - by cultural biases and ignorance against the older people. There is nothing morbid about growing old but only our attitude toward it.
Both the inner elder and the inner child have a few vital common traits, they have to depend on others to some extent for their survival. The inner child wants to learn how to live for the rest of his life the inner elder wants to be assisted and respected for the remainder of her life. Paying equal attention to our older self should only bring more balance and understanding about the multifaceted personas that we need to wear at different stages of life. We should also learn to distinguish between the last days or weeks of our lives which have nothing to do with age. No one knows when the end is. When it comes it comes.
Any link between ageing and loss of energy is a fable. In 2016 Chris Shapland, 69, swam across the English Channel. In 2013, on her fifth attempt, Diana Nyad at 64, became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage, swimming from Havana to Key West (180 km).
Linking creativity with youth is yet another myth. Many writers have engaged in their craft for as long as they could hold a pen. Norman Mailer had his last book published at 84. The Castle in the Forest was the New York Times Bestseller for 2007, the same year Mailer died, and it won a few literary awards. Last year, at 80, Annie Proulx published Barkskins. She published her most famous book, The Shipping News at 58. At 88, Doris Lessing published Alfred and Emily.
A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada founded the Hare Krishna movement at the age of 70. In the latter years of his life, he translated over sixty volumes of classic Vedic scriptures (such as the Bhagavad Gita and Bhagavata Purana) into the English language.
Sex is another area that we think belongs to the domain of the young. Many hang on to the idea that older people are not interested in sex or they are not capable of having or enjoying sex. Disinterest in sex in older people according to several comprehensive surveys has to do with health or lack of partner than age. In one survey among 57-85 year-olds in U.S. found older people continue to have sex sometimes in such intimate and sensual ways that make the classic sexual manual, the Kama Sutra, look outdated. The wisdom of age seems to have a potent take on sex which you can only discover when you get there.
The trend of people from the West retiring in other countries such as Malta, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Nicaragua, Malaysia, Panama, Mexico has only increased over the years. Their money definitely travels further (especially if they don’t have much of it) and the grey hair is something to be proud of. Community life is refreshing and heartwarming. They are noticed in the queue and respected listened to and treated with dignity, unlike the cultures they grew up in.
Feeling that you are not part of a whole is demoralising at any phase in life, but especially in the latter part of life. Carolyne G Heilbrun, the author of The Last Gift of Time, decided to end her life after her 70th birthday but changed her mind when she looked back in the previous two decades of her life and how those years brought with them unexpected friendships, new discoveries and pleasant experiences.
To live, grow old and die is a heroic undertaking in itself. No dark, prejudicial held beliefs should put an extra burden on people advanced in years. Ageism is as diabolic as racism and sexism. The older generation should be our inspiration to live and be productive for as long we can because they have done it. Old age should also be about freedom, as we get less and less tangled in the hypocrisies and pretentiousness of our cultures because we won’t take part in power plays and self-serving competitiveness. Freya Stark once said, “If we are strong, and have faith in life and its richness of surprises, and hold the rudder steadily in our hands. I am sure we will sail into quiet and pleasant waters for our old age.” Isn’t that where every sensible person would like to be one day where we can celebrate our life and the newfound freedom?
Photography by Toni Luciani