Times have changed since Jenny Joseph wrote her wonderful and much-loved 1961 poem “Warning”. “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,” she wrote, ultimately exhorting herself to start practising a little straight away so her friends wouldn’t be too shocked later on. Not many people would consider wearing purple as a rebellious sign of growing old disgracefully nowadays, although I have to admit that I too still feel a slight frisson when I wear colours that are not supposed to go together, like pink and orange, or even brown and black.
Joseph didn’t mention growing old gracefully or disgracefully, and which advice we should follow all depends on what we mean. The former path seems to gesture mainly towards some kind of resigned acceptance of the status quo, while the latter indicates a defiant, devil-may-care throwing overboard of conventions, a denial of fulfilling the roles that are expected of us.
But surely both of these attitudes can be assets if we can find the right balance between them. We don’t have to settle into excessively limiting routines on the basis of stereotyped views of age-appropriate behaviour. But neither do we need to make a point of being outrageous, like the Hell’s Grannies in Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
By our older years we may have gained some kind of right to care less about what people think but, typically, we will also have gathered experiences, reflected on things and reached a much clearer sense of what matters in life, of what’s worth doing and what is not.
The balance cannot be the same for everyone, and must be based on our own particular personality and circumstances. But the main idea is to simply continue to do the things we want to do to the extent that we can – call that growing old gracefully or disgracefully. What matters is retaining some zest for life, in whatever way is appropriate for us. Bungee jumping is strictly optional.
In the film Little Miss Sunshine, an old man gives his grandson some unorthodox guidance about drug use. “When you’re young, you’re crazy to do that shit,” he says, before adding, “You get to be my age – you’re crazy not to do it.” And the heroin-injecting grandpa certainly followed his own advice.
Whether we approve of such behaviour or not, most of us are much less willing to condemn it in the old than in the young. I think there are good reasons for this. Since a lot of ethics concerns our responsibilities, and these do not remain constant throughout life, some ethical standards must surely differ depending on the stage of life.
Consider first the responsibility we have to look after ourselves. A 20-year-old has little sense of the pensioner he may become but he owes it to that future old man to make sure he leaves him in as good a state as possible. If we fail to look after ourselves, others will probably have to step in to bail us out financially or look after us in ill health.
Once we’re in God’s waiting room, however, neither of these considerations carries much weight. Indeed, living a little dangerously and risking dropping dead from a cardiac arrest might well prevent a not-so-distant future of unpleasant final decline and save friends and relatives from the distress this will cause.
Even more obvious is that in old age we are no longer as responsible for others. In most cases children should be able to look after themselves, while one’s own parents have usually left the stage already. With no dependants, many burdens of responsibility vanish.
Even though it is absurd to apply the same rules for those with whole lives ahead of them to those whose lives are largely behind them, people often treat the elderly just like children, nagging them to be sensible and ticking them off for every little sneaky sherry. Perhaps we envy the elderly’s freedom from responsibility and so try to deny their right to use it. If so, we should be less censorious and celebrate when they let what’s left of their hair down.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England.
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