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How can I combat my fears of ageing? Paula Coston makes some New Year resolutions

January 1, 2015

Uhde, Old woman with a pitcher, 19th century

Uhde, Old woman with a pitcher, 19th century


Old Gambian woman by Ferdinand Reus, 2008

Old Gambian woman by Ferdinand Reus, 2008


School of Fiamminga, copy of a Rubens portrait of an old woman, 17th century

School of Fiamminga, copy of a Rubens portrait of an old woman, 17th century


Nepali woman, Ghyaru

Nepali woman, Ghyaru

‘Anne M’. Egg tempera on panel by Benita Stoney. Image removed; permission for reproduction was never granted. I express my apologies to the artist and to the copyright holder.

If I’m honest, in my case it’s more a horror than a fear; not so much of ageing in its superficial, visible forms – the spotting and wrinkling of skin, brow ploughed with now permanent frown lines, sagging breasts and stomach and buttocks, the morphing into horn of the toe- and fingernails, head hair dulling and threading itself with white and grey while hair elsewhere on the body thins to a few poor strands (though, heaven knows, these are hard enough to accept as my replacement outward shape) – as the internal sensations of dwindling and reduction. It’s like a kind of encroaching claustrophobia.

For me, this has multiple sources. First there’s the striking onset of a sense of my near-invisibility: in shops and at markets, at multi-generational gatherings, out walking, so often, almost everywhere, increasingly noting a marked new lack of eye contact or a simple exchange of words with others who are younger. Second, this year I’ve been ill. Some experts claim that the realisation of an ageing future often pounces on women around the menopause, but I seem to have dodged that bullet: for me it’s been triggered by my illnesses this year, and the sudden awareness that this month, January 2015, is the month of my 60th birthday. (Yes, yes, I know that a number shouldn’t matter. But none of these emotions are obedient to reason.)

Needless to say there are innumerable articles and accounts of research about all this, many online. See for instance http://www.stylist.co.uk/life/why-we-are-scared-of-growing-old; http://www.nextavenue.org/article/2012-04/why-we-fear-aging-more-we-should; http://viviandiller.com/; https://www.fightaging.org/archives/2009/11/fear-of-aging-is-absolutely-rational.php; http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14797585.2013.857904#.VKUqqyusWxy; http://www.psychologie.uni-heidelberg.de/ae/apa/research/; and http://www.awakeningonline.com/htms/consciousAging.htm.

My ailments seem to have affected my sight, and so my reading and writing ability, core to my most beloved and essential everyday activities (and I’m beginning to notice a slight deterioration in my hearing, too). So ‘Encountering the ageing body in modernity: fear, vulnerability and “contamination”’ by Charles Howarth in the Journal for Cultural Research, Vol. 18, 2013 (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14797585.2013.857904#.VKUqqyusWxy) strikes a particular chord with me:

‘The fear of ageing becomes embodied within the encounter with the ageing body. Specifically, the fear is vulnerability: within the encounter, the youthful self is forced into the recognition of his/her own vulnerability. Modernity requires that this be disavowed.’

The unexpected intensification of a sense of my own vulnerability, a dramatic loss of confidence, especially in my faculties of sight and hearing, is a hard thing to accommodate in my previous sense of self. This trepidation reminds me of the wonderful work of Dr Brené Brown, the Texan guru who spends much of her working life inspiring others with courage enough to show and share their fears as an essential step in making vital human connections (http://brenebrown.com/). One of her key messages is the clear distinction between weakness and expressing vulnerability, which is, ultimately, strength.

Another aspect of my deterioration seems to be more obvious and common lapses in short-term memory: remembering number sequences that I’ve just been given, for instance; while yet a further factor in the onset of my sudden sense of shrinkage and reduction came when, earlier this year, my contribution to a radio documentary was drastically cut without forewarning, while that of three other (younger) women was given much more airspace in the programme. This seemingly ageist decision on a channel largely listened to by the over-50s was somehow another blow to my self-esteem.

Probably for most of us, our responses to ageing are complex: much more than a cultural reflex of self-revulsion at failing some contemporary standard of beauty and youthful-looking perfection. And self-help books such as Marie de Hennezel’s The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting: Ageing without growing old (2012) are simplistic and facile, almost completely overlooking as this book does the often great mental and emotional impediment to rising above debilitating illnesses and disabilities in older age.

Given our complicated reactions to the ageing process, there seem to be no easy solutions to help the older person – at least in western culture – to feel better about it; some ‘experts’ just urge contented acceptance. There’s no such thing. The truth is that ideally, of course, we need to change our entire ageist culture, including the way we absorb and perpetuate its messages ourselves without even thinking. That won’t happen easily or quickly: sadly, I’ll probably be dead before such transformation happens.

You can’t change your mindset just like that – and it seems unjust that we ageing ones should be expected to without societal collaboration and initiatives. None the less, research has shown that those who have a positive view of ageing actually stay healthier, which can be no bad thing, certainly for me. So here are some steps I’m going to take this year towards my own personal, inner, more positive morphing. Call them my New Year resolutions:

– I’m going to pursue the practice of mindfulness that I started just before Christmas, through a course. It helped me tremendously to be more accepting of the present moment and my present state, as well as to appreciate those many parts of myself that are not in discomfort or pain (http://bemindful.co.uk/; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGKe7b8NVWA).

– ‘Why we fear ageing more than we should’ (http://www.nextavenue.org/article/2012-04/why-we-fear-aging-more-we-should) points out, strikingly to me, that we can focus too much on our memory impairments when ‘most of our lives are anticipation’; so I’m ensuring that my diary is in part an anticipation diary, highlighting which events I’m especially looking forward to (I know there’s a bit of a contradiction with the mindfulness thing above, but what the hey).

– See the portraits of older women above? I’ve printed out these, and others, and displayed them on a visual board close to the space where I write. By close scrutiny and regular appreciation, I’m hoping they’ll teach me how to look differently in the mirror at my own changing face and body: to see them as a fascinating map, like each of the images reproduced here: a living, metamorphosing narrative of all my happy, and more harrowing, experiences.

– My local TV news, just before Christmas, featured an item about an 11-year-old girl who advertised in her town paper for a much older friend. She gained a woman in her sixties without children or close relations of her own who gradually became an honorary member of her family. In the past, I’ve pen-palled a child in Sri Lanka through a charity (an experience that later inspired my recent novel: http://www.amazon.co.uk/On-Far-Side-Theres-Boy/dp/178279574X and http://www.amazon.com/On-Far-Side-Theres-Boy/dp/178279574X). I’ve also been a ‘guardian’ to an international student here in the UK who needed somewhere to stay over the English school holidays. I’m about to start mentoring a young person, between the ages of 16 and 25, who has chosen to be mentored: helped and supported with applying for jobs, cv writing, interview techniques and maybe more personal problems and issues, too. Who knows? I might even follow that local young girl’s example and advertise for a young friend in some local family. Research shows that older people’s mental and emotional wellbeing can benefit tremendously from sustaining links with people considerably younger than themselves – and, more cynically, but no less realistically, we older folks – especially those without children and grandchildren – may need such friends to help and support us in the future (See the Ageing Without Children website: http://awoc.org/).

Happy New Year, everyone (of course, remember it can be your New Year any day). And good luck with all your own resolutions.

Old woman with child by Ernst Karl Georg Zimmermann, 1901 {{US-Public Domain}}

Old woman with child by Ernst Karl Georg Zimmermann, 1901 {{US-Public Domain}}

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