As a rule as the years pass women’s voices grow deeper and men’s voices get higher. Ask a blind person, or someone who hasn’t met you over the phone how old you are and you will get an idea of how well your voice is aging.
Soft tissue in the vocal tract alters with age ; our state of health also affects our voices. Arthritis can affect the jaw as we age. Poor dental care can affect resonance. Breathing can become more shallow. Poor posture can contribute to this – if the spine curves forward, we limit the movement of the diaphragm.
Deepness of voice is determined by the length of our vocal chords and in men this depends on the amount of testosterone received during puberty. Fortunately there are some ways to naturally increase testosterone such as eating more red meats, exercising and even having sex.
We can alter pitch consciously by singing a scale. But is it possible to permanently regain the voice of our youth?
Voice surgery is the most extreme option (see Something to Shout About.). But as vocal qualities are less innate than most people think, this may not be necessary. A speech therapist can be a worthwhile investment. In fact transgender people often succeed in changing their voices successfully due to speech therapy. Voice quality is often THE most important factor in the change-over. Speech therapists use machines that detect voice frequency and teach their patients to re-pitch their voice permanently (see My Dad Is A Woman). Social factors are equally important. The way we speak depends on how our parents and teachers spoke, and learning a new way from a professional is simply repeating this learning process. With practice it is astonishing how radically a voice can be changed with a little effort.
One way to start re-pitching our voice is to hit a target pitch and hum at it, then count and then begin with actual sentences. YouTube videos on finding your female/male voice can help with this.
It would therefore seem physical factors – including age – are less important in the way we speak than many of us believe. Subconsciously we may adopt the voice of an older person because this is how we believe people speak at that age. Older women often speak with a lower voice to reflect their increased confidence. It is well-known PM Margaret Thatcher used speech therapy to lower her voice to project confidence in the House of Commons. Subconscious beliefs are the most powerful determinant of aging. They should never be underestimated.
It is impossible to really know whether what we are seeing corresponds to reality, and how much our social and family background serves as a filter to what is perceived by our brains. Certainly it is now well known that the environment can affect our responses radically. When care units for Alzheimer’s patients are designed intelligently, anxiety, aggression, social withdrawal, depression and psychosis all decline according to a 2003 study (Zeisel). Providing bright light can also reduce depression and keep the brain functioning optimally, since circadian rhythms affect hormone levels and metabolic rate. A study published in 2008 by the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience found that brightly lit retirement homes slowed down cognitive decline. This is not just important for the elderly – school design can account for some 15% variation in results.
No studies have been done on the effect on the brain of moving into an assisted living facility, but it is possible the environment sends a message that primes a reduction in independence and possibly mental ability too. It is difficult to deny that our environment calls forth a response in us. Our thoughts and bodies respond differently to a work environment and to home for example; they respond in one way when faced with a shabby urban setting and another when contemplating a beautiful landscape. Graffiti for example has been described as a crime against an entire community because of the feelings of fear and decay it engenders, leading to insecurity, decline in property values and loss of services and businesses. Our environmental consciousness is largely subconscious, but all the more powerful for it, since it affects our thoughts and our bodies through the stress or relaxation response.
The brain’s job is to maintain a coherent view of the world. It will therefore interpret what it sees to fit our assumptions, and this includes our beliefs about ageing. This begins the moment we are born. Newborns do not see the world the way we do. They cannot track moving objects but see mainly fuzzy shapes and contrast. Up to three years old their brains are making 24 million new connections every minute. What happens then is interesting – synaptic pruning occurs from age 10 to 18. This basically means that connections that have not been used are eliminated to free up space for the ones that are more useful in their environment. The brain is not fully developed until 25 (which is why teenagers cannot see the bigger picture). In this way our brains create our reality.
As we age the brain (probably the orbito-frontal cortex) puts together pieces of information to make sense of our ever-changing environment. However over time if something fails to fit what we have been taught, the brain will literally alter the information to maintain coherence. An example of this is the McGurk Effect. If we are exposed to the sound “bah” but watch a video of a person mouthing the sound “fah”, our brain will hear ‘fah’. Even when we are told the sound is in fact ‘”bah” (and verify this by closing our eyes), the moment we watch the person mouthing “fah”, the brain will again hear “fah” (see video page). Another example of how the brain discards information is motion-induced blindness. This may happen when driving at night when there are so many stimuli (lights, sounds, flashes) the brain avoids being overwhelmed by weeding out what we do not need. The same thing happens when wine experts are given white wine to taste and then the same wine coloured red. Their description of the taste alters dramatically.
So, how suggestible are we?
As we grow older, we are confronted with an onslaught of assumptions, reports, facts and figures about what it is to be over fifty, sixty, or eighty for example. It is all too easy to internalise this information and allow it to affect our mental and physical responses. But we have far more control over how we age than we think. An example of how our environmental consciousness can affect our health is stress. When faced with a challenge our sensory systems function more quickly leading to lots of mental energy. This continues as long as we feel we can cope. The minute we decide it is too much the amygdala is turned on which leads to a deterioration in brain function. However, the key here is that it is OUR decision – only we can decide when we are overwhelmed. Once the fight-or-flight response is triggered we go from creative ideas to no creative energy at all.
Let us imagine facing a steep flight of stairs. A young person will ‘know’ they can cope, but when we are older we may think, “I can’t be expected to climb those stairs at my age.” The stress response will then pump harmful cortisol into our bodies. Unless we are aware of what we are doing, we may always react in the same way to those stairs from then on, signalling a decline in ability and fitness. Seeing the stairs as a challenge would trigger quite a different response.
70% of our brain connections change every day. From our first to our last breath everything we are doing is changing our brain. We allocate our 100 billion processors differently depending on what we put our attention on. Experiment after experiment has demonstrated that focusing on a particular skill or response will cause the corresponding area of the brain to grow.
The concepts we internalise and the words we use can cause us to get stuck in attitudes that do not serve us. Through questioning our response to the environment, and through meditation, we can transcend language and thought. The ability to think about thought, to have a sense of who we are outside time, space, our society and contemporary ideas empowers us not to be a victim of our environment but instead to transcend environmental consciousness. What we perceive and how we react to it will always be affected by the programme our brain is running until we become aware of it.
So, are we running a programme that tells us we are an old person?
Exposure to certain stimuli can affect our attitudes and behaviour. This is priming. Numerous experiments have demonstrated its power. In one famous experiment participants were asked to describe the taste of wine while listening to music. It was found that their responses depended on the type of music – for example when listening to Carmina Burana by Orff a wine was described as powerful and heavy but when Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker Suite was played the same wine was ‘subtle and refined’. Priming, when used intelligently, can be life-changing. A therapist treating a depressed patient who feels she is useless and incompetent can prime her by asking her to recall situations in her past in which she has been competent. However, usually priming is unconscious. From subliminal advertising to politically correct – or incorrect – ideas and biased information, our view of the world can be drastically altered.
Kazim is a devout Muslim. A mystic informed him he would live until the age of 73; since then he has lived his life in accordance with this prediction. In his view this is God’s plan for his life. He looks forward to death when he hopes to meet his Maker. If Kazim lives beyond the age of 73, his whole belief system would crumble. His body is therefore likely to begin to deteriorate in time for this prophecy to come true. Another example of self-priming for death is that of Ezekiel Emanuel, director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. His blog explains why he does not wish to live beyond 75. He believes by then he will have lived a full life. He does not wish to witness the slow decline of his physical capacities and the vanishing of his creativity. Although he gives an example of a colleague who is still extremely productive in his nineties, he feels this person is an outlier. His father deteriorated suddenly following a heart attack at 73. In fact the way our parents experience life after 70 has a tremendous effect on our expectations. Their attitudes and actual health prime us perhaps more than any other example of older people. We believe that as we share their genes, we will fall ill and die at the same age. This may lead to a collapse in our immune system ‘in time’ for this to happen. It is more : any life after the age of death of a same-sex parent may be seen as living on borrowed time.
There are clear biological differences between young and older people – for example sleep patterns due to melatonin levels and the ability (some scientists are now claiming this is merely willingness) to absorb random but not necessarily useful information. However, Ellen Langer’s classic study of a group of gentlemen in their 70s suggests priming has the greatest effect of all on how we age. The men were surrounded by magazines, movies and music from when they were in their 50s, and were encouraged to speak in the present tense about topics that interested them twenty years earlier. After just five days in this isolated environment the men showed greater concentration, memory skills, posture, eyesight, hearing, strength and flexibility. If just five days of positive priming can have such a remarkable effect, we can only imagine what a lifetime of positive priming about abilities after retirement age might do.
When we hear of a serious illness afflicting someone from our age cohort, or the decline in someone’s proficiency, we immediately wonder about ourselves. If we read an article stating the average composer writes his last significant work at 52, or that the prime of life ends at 60 after which ‘people’ generally experience a feeling of loss of control and dissatisfaction with life, information like this primes us. Our ambitions and expectations shrink. Sometimes priming is so strong reading articles which demonstrate the contrary frighten us. We think : if we internalize a positive stereotype about ageing, will this constitute denial? But there are countless examples of people who remained productive and active well into their eighties and beyond, and this is likely to be even more true for future generations.
If you suddenly discovered your life was going to be 30 years longer than you thought….how would that change your plans and the attitude to the rest of your life?
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Recently an old friend contacted me from Athens. His father, he said, had just died at 101. He had been illiterate, had spent his whole life tending sheep in the Greek countryside, but had gone to Athens to get hospital care after a series of strokes. However, the old man remained completely lucid, and when his children visited him in his hospital bed and asked him how he was, he would say with black humour, “Waiting for death, but quite well apart from that.”
What is waiting for death like for someone who never needed to wear a watch?
Contrary to most people’s everyday experience, space-time is not a rigid Euclidean framework, but is warped by objects, may be curved and bounded, is riddled with black holes and possibly wormholes and has 11 or more dimensions. The scientific theory of time and space is wildly out of line with the urban mind’s imaginings. Social time is not scientific time. Emotional time is not social time. Kant wrote that since we necessarily grasp the world through the structures of our brain we cannot possibly understand it fully. Time is an empty, elastic form that must be filled by emotions and thoughts, and so we dictate how it flows in accordance with our culture, education and programming, and each person’s time is individual.
How did time pass for that man who could not read, and who lived his life by the rising and setting of the sun and by the seasons? Whose birth was registered at a time when children could be well into toddlerhood by the time the parents got to the nearest town hall…so he may have been even older than 101.
“In the last year of his life he was still walking up and down his fields and tending his vegetables in the garden,” said my friend. His mother, in her nineties, is still alive, also fully lucid…also illiterate.
These examples apparently give the lie to all the stereotypes about learning and keeping the brain educated and active in order to prolong life and mental agility. The research can’t be wrong though, and it seems logical….no doubt clean living away from the stress and pollution of the city helped my friends’ parents to live so long and so healthily. Perhaps being immune to social stereotyping too, and to counting the years as we are forced to do in an urban environment. There was no retirement age for a Greek farmer either…so no social cues to deal with… no age at which the mind signals to the body that it is time to slow down and prepare for decrepitude.
But …what if we can combine all of the above i.e. 1) immunity to social cues and stereotyping 2) clean living and 3) literacy and lifelong learning…? Then think how long we, the next generation, may now be able to live. 120 will soon be commonplace.
There are two main forms of age discrimination, social and employment. The former leads to the latter.
Women seem to suffer most from discrimination at work due to age. In a recent case Miriam O’Reilly, the presenter of Countryfile, took the BBC to an employment tribunal after she was dropped at 53 when the programme moved to a primetime slot. The main presenter, John Craven (70), was instead joined by two new female presenters in their thirties. O’Reilly won six-figure damages.
Pay tops out for women in their mid-thirties and for men ten years later. Plenty of men are still in top positions in their sixties. This may be due to women’s family commitments at a time when men are reaching the top. Older men achieve ‘elder statesman’ status. Women are simply past it. The famous ‘squeezed middle’ – that’s middle-aged women – are dealing with ageing parents and school-aged children, and it’s not a good time to be trying to increase one’s earning power. No man feels guilty about spending too much time developing his career.
However, it is true that if a man loses his job in his fifties, finding a new one can be just as hard as for a woman. Some employers believe older workers aren’t adaptable, and may even be overqualified and likely to bolt if something better is offered to them (though this is just as likely to happen with someone younger of course). Older job-seekers are therefore often encouraged to stress their problem-solving skills based on a lifetime of experience, but this is frequently not enough to overcome the stereotype of the older worker who is seen as technophobic, intimidating to manage, less open to creativity and change and just biding their time till they can start drawing a pension. However as pension age edges further and further towards 70, someone at 50 these days is more than aware that not investing in a career could put them at a serious financial disadvantage. Employing someone over 55 is no longer likely to offer a poor return. In any case, research has found no correlation between age and performance on the job.
Do we then insist on being open about our age, in an attempt to overturn these stereotypes and redefine what society thinks an older person should work like, dress like and look like? In a 2010 interview for Kougar magazine, Marina Sirtis, who played Deanna Troy in Star Trek, made a plea in favour of honesty :
I’m not ashamed of my age. And this is something that I really hate – the fact that women lie about their age. They feel they have to because, when you’re over 40, it’s like you suddenly don’t exist….. I am 55 years old and I’m not ashamed of it ….
However, the flip side of this is, are we capable of overcoming our conditioning? Do we avoid associating ourselves mentally if not actually in practice with, say, the over-sixties, by being elusive about our age, in order to avoid not only being categorised by others but to undermine the subtle power of stereotype embodiment in ourselves?
Socially, we hardly notice age discrimination until it is used against us, and this can happen suddenly when a younger person says, “You’re amazing,” and means, “for your age.” Or, “Gosh, you’re so agile!” or describes us as feisty, sweet or “still sharp as a knife”. It is well meant, and yet makes us feel like we have been punched in the stomach. Such an experience immediately puts us at risk of stereotype embodiment. This theory states that we are brainwashed into attitudes about older people at a time when these beliefs are not self-relevant. Once internalised, these attitudes become part of a subconscious set of beliefs about older people. We therefore do not question them, and when we reach later life we unwittingly embody them, since we have always held them to be true. Behaviours, perceptions and physiological responses are therefore triggered that fulfil the self-concept of being ‘old’.
Women in particular may face a crisis after the menopause and a sense that having outlived their reproductive usefulness they really ought to be dead. Some may find it surprising that mentally and emotionally, nothing has changed. Then when the men their age drool over younger women, feelings of contempt may arise.
If we have spent our entire lives feeling separate from the elderly, finding ourselves suddenly perceived as one of them comes as a terrible shock. But as human lifespan extends beyond 100 for an increasingly large minority, inevitably perceptions of what 50, 60 and 70 means socially and professionally will change. The 60 year-olds of today bear little relation to those of our grandparents’ generation. Let us do whatever we can to overturn society’s ageism by remaining forever ageless ourselves.
“I’m too old for this shit,” – is the running joke in the Lethal Weapon film series. Roger Murtaugh is constantly pondering retirement and complaining he is too old for everything that happens to him. Claiming we are too old for something we ought to do, or for something bad that may or actually does happen, is a statement that does two things :
1. Conceals the real psychological reason why we shy away from something.
2. Invites us to consider ourselves too old for lots of other stuff too, which hastens senility and checking out from active life.
There are very, very few things that require us to be a certain age (see video page, 102 yr-old base jumper). If we’re honest, claiming our age prevents us from taking action is an excuse. It hides the fear and insecurity that comes with doing something difficult or new. Age is a locked door to hide behind when opportunity comes knocking. We may be afraid of looking stupid – it’s hard to be a beginner when you can’t claim youth as an excuse – or we may simply be afraid.
“I’m too old to ring up prospective tenants’ employers to inquire about their income,” said Dorothy when her financial advisor suggested investing in property to supplement her pension.
“I’m too old to stand up and speak to a room of strangers,” said Agnes when asked to speak on her experience of beating cancer.
“I’m too old to learn how to use a smart phone,” said Bart when his grandson suggested showing him what they can do.
The reason Dorothy and Agnes felt too old was really that they were too nervous, since both these tasks demand confidence and courage. In fact younger people often think they are too young to do things that require these qualities. If Dorothy and Agnes were honest, they would agree there never was an age when public speaking or making difficult phone calls came easily. If Bart were honest a failure to see the point of learning how to use yet another gadget – after the dozens of gadgets he had already learnt to use during his lifetime – was the real reason he wasn’t keen. Next time we are tempted to say we’re too old for something let us ask ourselves – is it rather that we simply can’t be bothered?
Saying we’re too old after say, 65, is fast becoming nonsense in a world where we can expect to live another 40 years, and probably soon 60 years after “retirement”. The European Commission declared 2012 as the Year of Active Ageing. Active ageing means helping people to stay in charge of their own lives for as long as possible as they age and to contribute to the economy and society. It is probable that retirement will soon become a thing of the past, since governments won’t be able to support the population of over-65s; in fact people will increasingly be responsible for their own pensions. In any case, not only is extended retirement not affordable, it isn’t terribly good for us. It is a waste of resources to expect the over-65s to accept no longer being useful, and it is also a health risk since the more engaged we feel, the better we age physically and mentally. Society simply cannot afford to keep the large population of senior adults (half the people who have ever lived to the age of 65 in the world are alive today), nor can society afford the health bill of the inactive.
The great thing about not being too old for anything is that by the time we reach the age at which most careers have ended we can start preparing for what has been dubbed our “second act”. It may be that we love doing what we have always done, but for the majority of people who feel doing the same thing for 40 years is enough, the end of one career will in the future signify the beginning of a second one. It is also, incidentally, crazy that people have to work hard and establish their careers at the same time as they are involved in the exhausting task of raising a family. Having the chance to do a job we can focus on completely and not having to do it every day is every person’s dream. No longer will we feel that any education we do after 60 is ultimately pointless. Instead the fireman will retrain as a maths teacher, the doctor will go back to university and get an arts degree and then teach evening classes, the electrician will go to drama school and go into films. Entrepreneurs over 50 have a higher success rate. Mark Freedman founded the Purpose Prize for social entrepreneurs over 65 in the US, pointing to research that shows older people have a wiser attitude to work.
When we realise just how much time we have left, the world becomes our oyster. Let us stop marking our spot on the ledger, for it may be that ledger extends way off the page.
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Next time we’re in a car, let us observe. Imagine we were extraterrestrial social behaviourists. What conclusions would we draw about earthlings?
They are unlikely to be good. If there is one area of daily human activity that indicates what demons lurk beneath our social façade, if there is any time that we can learn more about who we are and what motivates us, it is behind the wheel. More than this, if we manage to transform driving into an experience where we grow emotionally we will be in the tiny minority of human beings who are likely to achieve the degree of self-mastery that promotes longevity.
“I decided to observe my reactions when I was late and in a traffic jam,” said Adam who had been diagnosed with a heart murmur. “I was gripping the wheel and my back was tense, my eyes wide-open and staring and my hands clammy. My jaw was set and my neck was stiff. I realised my heart was pounding. For someone with my condition it couldn’t have been worse.”
Driving is a health risk, due to two factors – noise and stress. Noise activates the stress hormones and increases blood pressure. Exposure to chronic noise – true for all city-dwellers – has been linked to cardio-vascular disease. Add to this the stress of driving and you have a powerful, toxic cocktail.
There can be fewer human activities that involve so many stressful factors at once. These include :
• Aggressive driving by other road users
• Being constantly on alert due to the unpredictability of driving
• Visual overload with traffic signs and road works
• Congestion and – conversely – having to restrict speed on an open, traffic-free road
• Noticing the faults of others, such as failure to put on lights, texting while driving or illegal overtaking
• Negotiating badly parked vehicles
• Avoiding jaywalkers
• Believing the lights are against us
Some of the emotions that surge up in us when we are driving are :
• Feeling trapped, when we desire to move forward and can’t
• Frustration at driving a vehicle designed to move far faster than the speed limit
• Loss of control in traffic jams
• Fear our beloved cars will be damaged – leading to resentment, rage, helplessness, bad moods and depression
All these emotions can lead to an almost insuppressible urge to vent our anger. In most social situations the immediate consequences of an explosion of rage are enough to dampen our resolve but in a car we feel protected. Cars are linked to social status and are seen as an extension of ourselves. Feeling constantly attacked by other drivers engenders a sense of invaded territory and defensive, war-like posturing.
Although releasing stress in this way provides temporary relief, repeated anger takes its toll on the heart and the immune system. Experiencing an adrenaline rush but having to remain immobile puts massive strain on the body. We are forced to remain passive when every fibre in our body is telling us to get up and fight. If we drive every day and allow the experience to take over our emotions, sickness is a very real possible consequence. Moreover, getting used to relinquishing emotional control is likely to lower our barriers in other situations, until it becomes a habit outside the car too.
Being able to exercise emotional control in a situation where tempers are flaring and which is characterised by extreme unpredictability is a skill that will serve us well in any situation. Being able to take a step back and observe that little group of fellow humans – with whom we might otherwise have a very civilised conversation if we were having dinner with them – is taking control. To do so involves two things :
1. Overriding our instincts
2. Breaking out of the road’s hypnotic grip
Overriding our instincts can be achieved by active self-observation. Like Adam above, we begin by thinking, my body is experiencing the emotions of rage and frustration. But I am in control of my body. This all-important psychological breakthrough will allow us to step to one side and see the situation for what it is. One person in the hive mind can achieve a shift of vibration that will reverberate throughout an entire tail-back. Thinking, I will not allow myself to be influenced by this group negativity is the mark of a genius who not only values social harmony but also deeply values the preservation of his or her health.
Breaking out of the hypnotic grip of the road can be achieved by one simple step – smiling and making conciliatory gestures to other drivers. If a fellow driver receiving the gesture is lost in the fog of road rage it is unlikely that he or she will smile back, but there is a 90% probability our smile will have an calming effect on them. Playing soothing music and using congestion to daydream about something pleasant are also excellent tactics for shifting from negative to positive.
“Stupid cow,” said Brendon, as a smiling woman shrugged an apology and waved a thank you to him as she pulled out in front. But afterwards, Brian’s conversation turned away immediately from the horrors of the road and he began to talk about summer holidays.
It always works. Let us try controlling the hypnosis on the road tomorrow. We will be amazed at our power.
“Excuse me, I notice you came back late after lunch,” said the new supervisor.
Dina looked up in surprise at being addressed in this manner. She had been working for the firm for 30 years, and everyone knew that on Thursdays she went to visit her mother in the home. The supervisor was easily 15 years her junior, although as a new man eager to make a mark, his raw ambition and irascible nature which was clear from the redness on his face had already started aging him prematurely.
“I visit my mother on Thursdays,” she explained. “Not in company time,” he snarled. “Not on my watch. You are being paid to work.” Angry and shocked, Dina swallowed. But she did not say she had an agreement with the management, nor that she had oodles more experience than him. A regular meditator and calorie restrictor, she suspected he thought she was a junior, or certainly junior to him. She did not “let on” how old she really was, even though to do so would have given her great momentary satisfaction. “Noted,” she said, and continued her work. He would find out soon enough from the others that she was the senior employee in the office.
One of the things that consoles us about getting older is more confidence. As fewer and fewer people surpass us in age, it becomes more difficult to be intimidated, and if someone tries to manipulate us, bully or offend us, we are less likely to take nonsense from any young whippersnapper. It feels so good to be able to pull rank, to say, “I was doing this while you were still in short trousers” or to laugh about bank managers and customer service directors being knee high to grasshoppers while they try to bamboozle us into accepting shoddy good or services. It feels fantastic not to fear the boss, who may be younger than us and actually be nervous about addressing us on any issue; it feels that at long last we are in control. We command respect, people call us sir or madam, and assume we have money; we have presence, and maybe some of the younger ones even fear us, just as we once feared those older than us with power. The journey has been worth it for this delicious feeling of being on top of things, and of finally not wondering how everything is going to turn out.
Stop right there.
There is nothing wrong with confidence and feeling that at last we have got a grip. “I felt so weird when I was called sir by a young employee, and I realised to him I was a rather intimidating 50 year old, far ahead of him in the hierarchy,” said Jack. “The odd thing was it really seemed like yesterday I was feeling nervous of the people who – most of them – have now all retired. It was a wake-up call. I kind of liked it. But at the same time it scared me. I didn’t want to be like the guys I used to hate.” This is the rub; we enjoy confidence, but our subconscious picks up on the social cues. If we are respected, or even feared, we must therefore be like “old Barrows” who used to sneer at us when we were new to the job, and who often laughed at us for being naïve – and old Barrows was a red-faced, heavy-breathing, overweight, whisky-guzzling arsehole. Or maybe we have turned into the former head of personnel Mrs Tunbridge, now retired or maybe even dead, who struck fear into us with her sour face and loud tutting when we walked past in our short skirt twenty years ago. Is that how the younger people see me now? whispers our inner voice. To have respect we must grow old, set in our ways and probably disliked by those lower down in the hierarchy. And so the metamorphosis begins.
“What!” said the woman on the phone whom Sylvia was calling about planning permission. Sylvia softened her voice, and explained her case again. “You’re wasting your time. The city no longer gives planning permission to people wanting to convert garages.” “If I can’t convert the garage into a flat I’m not sure the building has much value,” said Sylvia. “You’re surely not buying the whole building sweetheart!” laughed the employee. Sylvia, who had a young voice but was actually well over 50, almost lowered her voice to make a haughty statement about her financial status. But she resisted. “She obviously thought I was a young thing with limited cash,” she laughed afterwards. “I decided to take the compliment.”
Deciding to take being treated as a younger person who can be intimidated as a compliment is a very sneaky way of staying ageless. Refusing to align ourselves with the sort of senior adult who might command respect is an odd choice, but one which will prevent our vibration shifting to that of someone past their prime. Of course we know not all older people are misanthropic or arrogant, but this post is not about judging older people, nor is it for those who are quite happy with being seen as a mature member of society.
But if we want to stay ageless, and maintain indefinitely the vigour of youth, we sometimes have to fake it to make it and turn down certain momentary perks of being older.
Well, a matter of personal choice.
Identify with the young.
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After 50 it is almost certain that at some time we will be told how good we look ‘for our age’. It is the age at which dubious offers start arriving in the post, such as off-season cruises and fashion catalogues featuring blouses with flounces and stretch pants, and even pre-paid funeral plans to give family members “peace of mind.” If we still have children of school age and could not even dream of taking an off-peak holiday, we are made to feel odd and out of kilter with the norm. If someone says we look good for our age at this point, we may be tempted to boast how old we actually are. Big mistake.
Affirming we look good considering our age is stamping our ‘social’ age on our subconscious. It is signing up to the world’s obsession with the passing of time, and aligning ourselves with society’s cues about how one should look, and behave, at a given age. It is being ageist, but towards ourselves. Sometimes when stating our age we leave a silence in the hope someone will say, “Wow, I’d never have guessed.” If the silence persists we feel cheated. Maybe I look even older than I really am, we might think.
Some people want to have it both ways. They want to look good but they also want what they see as the perks of being older. Some of these include being given the comfy chair, being told to take it easy with those bags or delegating household jobs to younger people. But if we want to stay ageless there are no half measures. Staying young means acting exactly as we would have when we were under 40. “I’ve got a bad back,” said the 65 year-old woman in the seniors’ group at the gym. “The coach said I should take it easy.” “Oh, what happened?” asked her friend. “I slept with the door open and my back caught a chill. That’s what happens when you reach old age.”
Well, at least it will have given her doctor a laugh.
When we start receiving these qualified compliments it is time to take a decision about how we will deal with them. If we want to buck the trend, we need to assume the persona of a young person fully. Staying ageless means giving up being able to intimidate rude people because of our age. It means foregoing pulling rank, and sometimes remaining silent when tempted to brag about experience. It sometimes means being elusive about how long you have been doing a job, or how vivid your memories are of Marc Bolan singing Metal Guru on Top of the Pops. Staying ageless means tricking one’s own subconscious and the collective unconscious by aligning ourselves with a younger us. “You mean buy one of the flats, not the whole block, love,” laughed the estate agent. The buyer’s chronological age? 52. The estate agent had assumed from her young voice on the phone she was much younger. She did not correct her, but sent an offer for the whole block two days later. Way to go.
Saying ‘back in my day’, ‘when I was your age’, or ‘30 years ago when I was in college’ may get you a raised eyebrow and lots of flattery, but at the expense of your subconscious mind which controls your physiology.
Is it so bad to give up compliments about how good we look for our age? After all there is always the possibility people are lying, which is even worse. Haven’t we all been confronted with someone who announces proudly, “Well, I’m 72!” and we reply on cue, “I’d never have guessed”, while secretly thinking how haggard they look and how we hope we never get to look like them?
If we really act as though we are young, we forego all those compliments about how good we look for our age, since people will assume we are much younger. If we want to turn back the clock, we dodge and duck age mania, we circumvent the relentless descent, and to achieve this we give up receiving praise for how well we have looked after ourselves “considering”. If we fish for compliments that we look good for our age, we are adopting that age. Internalising the comment You look good for 60 if we look and feel nothing like the accepted stereotype of 60 is as absurd as other conditional compliments such as “You look good for a bank employee”, or “You’re well-preserved for someone from Slough.” If we were to receive such a bizarre compliment we would feel an immediate clash with who we really are. Good for someone from Slough? But I’m not from Slough! Precisely, so nor am I 60, at least not what society believes 60 is.
We never fish for compliments, and if at all possible we keep silent about our chronological age, and simply carry on as normal.
At a sound therapy seminar the question was asked, if a spaceship was approaching earth, what would be the melody the extraterrestrials would hear first? The answer was Happy Birthday To You, sung every day to 20 million people : the sound of the human race marking time.
Despite the celebrations, many people find birthdays depressing. We’re supposed to be happy, but if no one remembers we feel unloved. Even if someone remembers, the expectations never quite live up to the impression created around birthdays when we were children. Then we were growing up and eager to become independent. Now birthdays signify something else – life slipping away. We may end up feeling great disappointment – I haven’t achieved what I said I would by now. I’m stuck on the same treadmill as last year. I’m as old as I once thought was totally past it. An awful lot of people don’t enjoy having Happy Birthday sung to them. It makes them feel slightly stupid; surprise parties can strike others as even worse. Birthdays continue to come in quick succession, and meanwhile time is running out.
The birthday song only goes back just over a century. Back at the turn of the 20th century, it really was a cause for celebration if you reached, say 50, since life expectancy was only 45. Even getting past 5 was an achievement when 30% of all deaths in 1900 occurred in children under that age. But now what are we celebrating? Anyone can get to 50, 60, or even 80 these days. You just have to not die. And other people insist on reminding us of our elderly status, – “Oh my God mom you’re half a century old, four times my age!”
Nathalie felt like that this year. “On my 56th birthday I was full of fear. I knew I only had four years left until I was 60. I could remember my gran when she was 60. She wore a hairnet, had dentures, wore an overall and shuffled around the kitchen. I could remember her bending down to stoke the fire.” Any given age conjures up a picture of all our relatives who were that age before us. We see the social archetype of that age, and often it doesn’t look good. We think, oh if I’m 72 I must look like that woman on the bus who used to mumble to herself when I was on my way to school.
Derek recalls, “On the morning of my 65th birthday I had a tight feeling across my chest. How could I be a pensioner already, on the last strait leading to death? How could that be when all I’d spent my time doing so far was to work to pay bills? When did I get to actually live? Everyone was congratulating me and I felt sick with fear. Is this all there is, I kept thinking? Terrified, yes, that’s not an exaggeration.”
Birthdays are sometimes about how desperate we feel because that things may be about to change for the worse, and yet we are stuck in the horror of a racing scenario. That scenario includes all those who have ended up worse for wear at age X. We tend not to think of the success stories. Ages have associations in our minds: 68 is the age my cousin got cancer…79 is when Uncle Bob passed away. The unspoken message to our body is, if I share their genes I must be living on borrowed time. A ledger appears in our heads – click…the countdown is triggered. It is as if thinking about the worst cases makes us feel we are at least preparing ourselves for disaster.
Albert Camus once said that after a certain age every man is responsible for his face. As the years pass, we may feel scared we will no longer recognise ourselves in the mirror. Or that we’ll recognise our father or mother instead. Or that the world will no longer recognise us for who we really are. Those who have relied on their looks all their lives may even feel they have overstayed their welcome. “When I was young,” said Latifa, “I thought old people were another species, and a defective one at that. Now I want to say to the young, getting old is like falling asleep on your school desk and waking up and finding you’re suddenly 75 years old. You panic. What happened? I’m the same person, so what the hell happened?”
Nature has always allowed humans to live way past the time of youth, and so yes, we should be here – on that score we can relax. Fearing old age, resisting it, can have a contradictory effect – what we resist persists – and if we continue to approach our birthdays with fear, that fear will eventually show up on our faces and we will have a self-fulfilling prophecy on our hands. We cannot flee the monster of old age, but we do not need to surrender to it either. Instead, we stand firm and confront!
Unless we live on a desert island it is impossible to avoid birthdays. One way to overcome the fear of the passing years is not to acknowledge them. As other people will insist on birthdays, instead of celebrating the decades clocked up, a birthday can be simply a celebration of our day of birth. We got here – so hurray for that. Avoiding constant repetitions of our age – even if others insist – can prevent the phenomenon known as stereotype embodiment, as can remembering that people experience fear at all ages over 29. Remember when we turned 40 or 50 and panicked? We thought our lives would be over, and yet…. Old age is always 15 years older than we currently are. It is not the passing of time that we are accumulating. It is the passing of experience.
“I’d rather die than grow old,” laughs Marleen, a model in her 30s with long black hair and green eyes – a real stunner. “For me, my body is my lunch ticket. I rely on it in my social life. I’ve just gotten used to being pretty. To age, for me, is a disaster.” Around the dreaded day, let us take a moment to sit with ourselves and explore our deepest fears. Do we fear the ugliness of old age? Do we fear being dependent on others who have neither the time nor the inclination to meet our needs? Let us examine the person inside the body. Can I still be happy sitting in an older body?
Claiming agelessness also means that even if one day our bodies show signs of our long time on earth, our inner selves will be rich treasures to draw upon to stay grounded. If I have relied on my beauty until now, can I imagine hilarious laughter with friends while looking (in my view) old and wrinkled? Can I be happy without my good looks? We are enough, with or without physical attractiveness. A life lived permanently at age 25 would be a thin sliver of a life, for we are also here to experience being 50, 60, 70, 80 and beyond. The consciousness inside the physical vehicle is able to inhabit a body of any age…many believe it has done so already countless times over repeated lives.
Those of us who want to stay ageless must stop counting the years. There is no real time, no passing of days and months, just a single stream of experience. We pass through the years like a ghost through a wall. We do not fear the passing of time, for we stand outside it. Age has no power because my inner being is sufficient. One day physical flesh will be irrelevant. A youthful face is a pleasant side effect but not our main goal. We seek spiritual mastery and for that years of experience are necessary. We seek knowledge, wisdom and above all joy, available to all irrespective of outer state.
So let’s celebrate having got this far, and celebrate having been born. We claim agelessness, but if our bodies show the passing of time, we’ll be ready.
And for those extraterrestrials, birthdays are indeed meaningless, since a year is only valid on earth, and time is elastic in space.
When we hit a dreaded birthday, let us repeat: I have no affinity with this age, for I am eternal.
How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?
Answer? “Like many people my age, I am 28 years old.“