An event by the Age of No Retirement last week was proudly entitled ‘Age does not matter’. Tempting as it is to agree with that statement, it’s a complete contradiction of the title of my local Age UK’s newsletter, ‘Age Matters’.
Which is right? Or are they both? It’s a fundamental question. After all, if age really doesn’t matter then what is the point of an older people’s charity?
There are two extremes in this argument. The first extreme – which is familiar to us all - charts a ‘narrative of decline’ in which increasing age automatically brings illness, infirmity, incontinence and death. In this narrative, age is our defining characteristic. All you really need to know about someone is how old they are and you can predict how they’ll be. Forget their incomes level, education, social connections, personality – just give me a number and I know all about you.
This is a narrative of absolutes – people are either young, middle aged or ‘old’ rather than on an age continuum in which some are older than others. It is a narrative that loves the concept of ‘generations’ – Millennials, Baby Boomers, Generation X– which clump of millions of different people together and hang labels upon (baby boomers are ‘wealthy’, for example). And it’s a narrative which stereotypes older people, for example as people who cannot be trusted to drive a car safely (despite all the evidence to the contrary).
It is a small, horrible narrative that puts limits on older people’s behaviour, aspirations and capabilities. It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, persuading people that they really cannot take that job, climb that mountain, start that relationship simply because they are too old. Let’s consign it to the wastebin. It assumes that age is the key (sometimes the only determinant) in how our lives are playing out. And it fails to recognise the many benefits that older age brings for many (though by no means all) – increasing happiness and life satisfaction, greater experience and knowledge.
Yet just because the narrative of decline is wrong, that does not make its polar opposite – let’s call it the ‘narrative of complete denial’ – correct. Increasing age does not automatically bring with it ill health, dementia, disability and death - but it does increase the likelihood of all of those conditions. Some things will happen to all of us as we age - sarcopenia (muscle wastage) and a degree of cognitive decline, for example. When we’re not trying to argue against the narrative of decline, most of us will accept and even joke about those ‘senior moments’.
We may joke less about frailty and dementia. Many of us will become frail at some stage - around a quarter to a half of us by the time we pass 85. We may well be still living independently and getting satisfaction out of life but we will struggle at times and be at risk of a sudden, serious decline in our health after a relatively minor incident. And with dementia, the only significant predictive factor is age – the older we get, the more likely we are to have it. Once again, we may still be living a good life but our dementia will make it more difficult.
Finally, there is death. It should come as no surprise that the biggest risk factor for death is increasing age. The saying that the only certainties in life are death and taxation may have been disproved recently by Apple and Google - but only partly. The death bit still applies.
We need, then, not a narrative of decline or of complete denial, but of realism about age. One that does not set societal limitations on what an individual can do, at any age, but accepts there may be personal limits. One that does not stereotype all older people as frail (and yes, ‘elderly’) but accepts that some will be. One that does not deny the benefits of ageing but nor does it skirt over the challenges.
Until we get there, we should continue to shout down the narrative of decline but stop well short of acting as though age has no impact on our lives. It does matter, even if it does not define us.