Literary Review, December 2013
Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing
The meaning of old age has changed radically in my lifetime. People are living longer and some of us will remain healthy at an age when previous generations would have expected to be infirm or dependent. At the same time, the number of older people with dementia is rising, contributing to a narrative in which age is more than ever something to be feared or denied. Popular culture encourages women to start worrying about the signs of ageing in their 20s, creating a situation in which adults could spend most of their lives fretting over the gradual loss of youth. Wrinkles? Cellulite? It’s never too early to contemplate that first facelift, at least if you happen to be a reader of one of the biggest-selling newspapers in the UK.
This is not a logical response to the prospect of living longer and staying healthier than most of our ancestors. But there are so many paradoxes around the subject of growing older that it is hard to know where to begin. Lynne Segal makes an informed and thoughtful attempt in her latest book, which she has written in her late 60s. Segal is an academic, a professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck College, and she combines her own ideas with the work of other writers and artists to disentangle strands which often seem inextricably woven together.
It would be easy to assume from much of the discourse around age that the final decades of life are a losing battle with disability, dementia, loss and the fear of death. It would be just as easy to assume, given the persistence of stereotyped representations of older people, that ageing is nothing more than a poor lifestyle choice which the young would be well advised to avoid. What this misses, as Segal shows, is that different people experience ageing very differently. If it seems brave to mention the ‘pleasures’ of getting older in her sub-title, it is because she is determined not to give in to the unthinking gerontophobia of our century; some older people are not disabled or even in poor health until the very end of their lives. Segal does not shy away from the realities of physical decline and dementia, writing movingly about couples where one ends up caring for the other, but she is clear that some of the disadvantages associated with old age are economic.
Being poor isn’t much fun at any age and many women are clustered in poorly-paid jobs where they are unable to accumulate generous pensions, This is often forgotten in diatribes against the ‘baby boomers’ who grew up in the prosperous decades after the Fifties and supposedly defrauded later generations of their birth-right. Commentators love this kind of inter-generational warfare but it ignores the fact that ‘pensioners’ make up a substantial number of those living in poverty; single women in their 60s are actually over-represented in this cohort. Segal argues powerfully that growing inequality within, not between, different age groups is a characteristic of the current economic crisis.
She has a rich literature to draw on, from Philip Roth’s depiction of the ‘woes of ageing phallic hubris’ to Alice Walker’s upbeat poem, ‘What do I get for getting old?’ Walker’s cheery affirmations might not suit everyone but they are in striking contrast to the rage and disappointment she expressed as a younger woman. ‘I am in my sixty-seventh year, having lived already a long and fruitful life, one with which I am content,’ she writes, without feeling a need to curtail her lifelong commitment to political activism.
Of course Segal is a feminist and one of the most fascinating elements of her book is the way she interrogates gendered assumptions about age. A horror of older women is one of the least attractive features of popular culture, which makes a habit of subjecting famous women to cruel scrutiny. (Madonna, who is not yet 60, is a favourite target.) Segal points out a biological fact which is often overlooked: some men lose the capacity to have penetrative sex as they age but many older women don’t suffer a loss of either desire or ability. So it’s curious that older women are so often regarded as sexless or ‘post-sex’, telling themselves and friends that they have moved beyond all that messy business. Like Segal, I suspect this may be a way of coping with a fear of rejection, and it seems to me braver to acknowledge that many older women need passion and intimacy just as much as men.
Segal’s book is full of such insights but the most significant lies in a short sentence towards the end: ‘The real question is – how are we to live our lives?’ She means that many of the challenges life throws up remain constant, even at a late point in our existence. As this book suggests, ‘the old’ have more in common with the rest of the population than it is fashionable to admit.