How old is old?
I recently had a very interesting conversation with a colleague, stimulated by an exciting new project we’re about to embark on, which will explore attitudes to and perceptions of old age.
We discussed ways in which we might approach our research into the area, and considered the possibility of holding deliberative workshops with participants of varying ages. It seemed like it would be particularly helpful to talk to a group of what I’ve called ‘transitioners’ – people who are approaching ‘old age’ but not quite there yet.
Deciding on the actual age that would be appropriate to include in this group was trickier than you might think. My opening suggestion was that we go for the 60 to 70 range.
I’m sure I was somewhat influenced by thinking about my parents, who, in their early sixties, certainly don’t think of themselves as belonging to the category of ‘old age’. Both still working in some capacity, they recently holidayed by sea-kayaking off the coast of northern Scotland, in spite of autumnal gales and squally showers. Dad runs 10k in under fifty minutes, and last year Mum shifted several tonnes of millstone grit and built a 20 metre curved dry-stone wall out of it.
Of course, they’re showing some signs of ageing, and are perhaps starting to think about how they’ll fill their time once they’ve both completely withdrawn from work, but they’re definitely not there yet. Transitioners, for sure.
But, you can’t design research sampling techniques based mainly on personal reflections about your parents. After some more deliberation, we settled on 50-65 for the transitioners age group. Given that retirement usually starts around 65, it seemed that the fifteen years approaching this time could reasonably be considered as transitional.
These definitional challenges are slippery though. As life expectancy creeps up and the retirement age gets pushed higher, the boundaries of when exactly old age starts get fuzzier. Are we right to put fifty year olds in the transitioners category, when many of them may easily still have twenty or more years of working life left?
It’s perhaps not surprising that many people want to put off being classed as being ‘old’ for as long as possible, which suggests that there’s an assumption that oldness is fundamentally an undesirable state.
This puts me in mind of my Granny, who is now 93. She has some health problems now, but until very recently she would talk of going to visit her ‘old ladies’ in the nursing home. Practically all of the women she visited were younger than her, but she nevertheless thought of them as ‘old’ and herself presumably as younger if not young.
It’s charming and amusing, but is it also patronising for me and other relations to laugh at Granny for refusing to define herself as old?
Perhaps her insistence on holding onto her sense of identity as not being primarily defined by old age is indicative of a society-wide negativity about old age. Why should we feel bad about entering old age? Can we rescue the social status of old age to make it, if not desirable, then at least not something to be feared?