Modern westernised humans, growing up as we have in a culture that glorifies youth and tip-toes around death, are scared stiff of getting old.
Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.
We're so scared, in fact, we even go as far as avoiding and despising those we associate with ageing and death – our senior citizens.
"Gerontophobia,” the fear and aversion for elderly people and old age, is a particularly odd and unhealthy prejudice in that it isn't directed at a group of Others, but at a group the phobics themselves will belong to eventually (unless, of course, they die first).
The elderly are us a few short decades hence: gerontophobia is thus also the fear and aversion we have for our own future older selves.
Most of us aren't on the extreme end of the gerontophobic scale of active hatred for every grey hair. More commonly, the pathology manifests as a milder, but still poisonous denialism: trying not to think about end-of-life issues at all if we can help it. Which generally translates as putting off planning for old age, a foolish move unless you're assured of sudden, painless death while you're still sound in mind and body, or immense wealth and an adoring, resentment-free family to take care of you.
“Not thinking about it” is going to become increasingly difficult with each year we travel further into the steadily greying 21st century however: old age is about to move out of the shadows and onto centre stage.
As the number of people under age 15 decreases world-wide, the number of people over 60 is growing. In most of the developed world, the over-60s have already exceeded the under-15s, and by 2050, this will be true globally for the first time in history. In developed populations, one third will be over 60. And within this older age group, the fastest growing sector are the over-80s.
These ageing populations pose a considerable challenge to economies and health systems, but they're a challenge to our perceptions too. It's clear that our attitudes and fears towards old age need a radical update and overhaul for our times; a good place to start is to re-learn the value of older members of the human family.
We've got it woefully upside-down and backwards. Society commonly views octogenarians, not to mention nonagenarians, as weak and irrelevant, when really they are anything but. They are life's winners.
If you've made it as far as 85 (and are thus classified as one of the “very old”), you've got the goods – a special combination of genes, lifestyle choices, good sense and a little luck – that allowed you to dodge the fatal risks that felled others.
Sweet Sixteens and Twenty-firsts are fun, but they're not much of an achievement, let's face it; even stone age humans made it that far with relative ease. But 80? Now that's a Birthday.
At that age you're not a figure of pity, you're an embodiment of successful survival, and younger humans would do well to learn from you. Indeed, some make it their life's work to do so: very old individuals, and communities that have such people in high numbers, are greatly sought after by researchers trying to divine their longevity secrets for the benefit of the rest of us.
But old people aren't just heroes for passing the big milestones; being 80 requires huge reserves of inner strength and courage.
For people of this age, the end of life isn't, as it is for us younger denialists, an occasional, swiftly repressed thought; it's up close and personal every day, and compounded by the stresses and sorrows of illness, infirmity and the loss of one's peers. As Philip Larkin put it, “The peak that stays forever in our view for them is rising ground”.
Despite this, many elderly people are enviably psychologically resilient, waging their battles against age with an awe-inspiring calm and cheerfulness. Several recent studies have shown that elderly people tend to be happier, less anxious and less angry than people in middle age. The old are generally better at resolving conflict, controlling their emotions and coming to terms with misfortune.
There are several theories as to why this should be. Perhaps older people, knowing they're closer to death, become better at living in the present, focusing on what truly matters and letting go of the "small stuff".
Whatever the reason, the appropriate response when one of us emotionally turbulent youngsters meets anyone over 70 and in glowing psychological health over 70 should be this:
“How do you do it? Teach me, so I can start practising. And it's not only that I'll need these skills when I'm your age – I could really use them right now.”
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. World Population Ageing: 1950-2050.