What Old Age Is Really Like
Somewhere along the way, though, things went wrong. My protagonist became Generic Old Man: crabby, computer illiterate, grieving for his dementia-addled wife. Not satisfied to leave him to his misery, I forced on him a new love interest, Eccentric Old Woman: radical, full of energy, a fan of wearing magenta turbans and handing out safe-sex pamphlets outside retirement homes.
In other words, I modelled my characters on the two dominant cultural constructions of old age: the doddering, depressed pensioner and the ageless-in-spirit, quirky oddball. After reading the first draft, an editor I respect said to me, “But what else are they, other than old?” I was mortified, and began to ask myself some soul-searching questions that I should have answered long before I’d written the opening word.
The first was: Why did I so blithely assume that I had the right to imagine my way into old age—and that I could do it well—when I would approach with extreme caution the task of imagining my way into the interior world of a character of a different gender, race, or class? Had I assumed that anybody elderly who might happen to read the book would simply be grateful that someone much younger was interested in his or her experience, and forgive my stereotyping?
The conundrum of who has the authority to write about old age is that, unlike the subjective experience of most imagined Others, seniority is something that many of us will eventually experience for ourselves. By contrast, I can imagine what it might be like to be a man, for example, but won’t ever know for sure. As the literary scholar Sarah Falcus writes, building on the work of Sally Chivers, “We may all have a more mobile relationship to age than to other perspectives or subject positions … because we are all aging at any one moment.” Yet just because I may, one day, know if I got it right—perhaps, to my surprise, I will find the world of my own old age populated entirely by grumpy old men and old women who are either lost to dementia or sprightly and renegade—doesn’t mean that I should be cavalier about how I imagine my elderly characters now. Of course, like any fictional representation, old age can be done well or badly regardless of one’s own positioning as an author, but there’s less chance of being called out on hackneyed depictions of old age, in part because those in the know—the over-eighty-five-year-olds themselves—haven’t historically had any cultural power.
Stereotypes of old age, whether positive or negative, do real harm in the real world, argues Lynne Segal, the author of “Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing” (2013). She says that the biggest problem for many older people is “ageism, rather than the process of aging itself.” There is no possibility of diversified, personal approaches to aging if we are all reductively “aged by culture,” to use the age critic Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s iconic phrase, from her 2004 book, “Aged by Culture.” Gullette highlights the limitations of having only two socially accepted narratives of aging: stories of progress or stories of decline. Neither does justice to the “radical ambiguities” of old age, Segal says. We’re forced either to lament or to celebrate old age, rather than simply “affirm it as a significant part of life.”
Old age is perplexing to imagine in part because the definition of it is notoriously unstable. As people age, they tend to move the goalposts that mark out major life stages: a 2009 survey of American attitudes toward old age found that young adults (those between eighteen and twenty-nine) said that old age begins at sixty; middle-aged respondents said seventy; and those above the age of sixty-five put the threshold at seventy-four. We tend to feel younger as we get older: almost half the respondents aged fifty or more reported feeling at least ten years younger than their actual age, while a third of respondents aged sixty-five or more said that they felt up to nineteen years younger.
The researchers also found “a sizable gap between the expectations that young and middle-aged adults have about old age and the actual experiences reported by older Americans themselves.” Young and middle-aged adults anticipate the “negative benchmarks” associated with aging (such as memory loss, illness, or an end to sexual activity) at much higher levels than the old report experiencing them. However, the elderly also report experiencing fewer of the benefits that younger adults expect old age to bring (such as more time for travel, hobbies, or volunteer work).
These perceptual gaps between generations are large and persistent. Simone de Beauvoir, in her exhaustive study “The Coming of Age” (published in 1970, when she was sixty-two), wrote, “Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species.” The anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, who made the documentary film “In Her Time,” about a community of elderly Californians, when she was in her forties, believed that “we are dehumanized and impoverished without our old people, for only by contact with them can we come to know ourselves.”
Even more confusingly, we don’t experience old age identically. As Germaine Greer puts it, “Nobody ages like anybody else.” The poet Fleur Adcock, who is eighty-one, says “this great range of abilities and states of health confuses the young: they can’t figure us out.” We age as individuals and as members of particular social contexts, yet the shared experience of old age continues to be overstated. The eighty-two-year-old British novelist Penelope Lively writes that her demographic has “nothing much in common except the accretion of years, a historical context, and a generous range of ailments.” At the same time, though, she warns that aging is such a “commonplace experience” that nobody should “behave as though … uniquely afflicted.”
The actress Juliet Stevenson, who is in her late fifties, recently commented that “as you go through life it gets more and more interesting and complicated, but the parts offered get more and more simple, and less complicated.” The same could be said for the dearth of good roles for old characters in literature. Lively believes that “old age is forever stereotyped … from the smiling old dear to the grumbling curmudgeon.” In fiction, she says, the stereotypes “are rife—indeed fiction is perhaps responsible for the standard perception of the old, with just a few writers able to raise the game.”
I started to realize that, in creating my spunky elderly female character, I had romanticized the version of old age that tells a story of progress, indulging a fantasy of who I might be when I’m old. When writing her, I had been thinking of Jenny Joseph’s “Warning,” regularly voted the U.K.’s favorite postwar poem, in which the young speaker imagines with longing the freedoms of rebellious old age and the prospect of making up for the “sobriety of youth.” I’m hardly a renegade now, however, so why did I harbor the illusion that as I get older I will somehow throw off the shackles of propriety? Most of what has been written in the sociological literature about life in our seventies, eighties, and nineties suggests that who we are when we are old remains pretty close to who we were when we were young. There is comfort in the idea of some consistency of self across the decades. While sometimes distressing, the denialism of old age—think of the sixty-three-year-old Freud’s horror at realizing that the elderly gentleman he’s glimpsed on the train is in fact his own reflection, or the scientist Lewis Wolpert’s lament, “How can a seventeen-year-old like me suddenly be eighty-one?”—is also proof of our ability to remain on intimate terms with younger versions of ourself. “Live in the layers, / not on the litter,” as the Stanley Kunitz poem goes, and he knew what he was talking about: he became Poet Laureate of the United States at the age of ninety-five.
Another aspect of my fantasy was that old age is a consistently satisfying bookend to a shapely arc of a life, a time for getting things in order. But in this, I was ignoring the fact that old people are just as vulnerable to disorder, not to mention happenstance, caprice, and bad luck, as anybody else. Grasping for closure might be the goal of fiction, but it is not necessarily the lived experience of old age. As Helen Small writes in “The Long Life,” her study of the literature and philosophy of old age, “declining to describe our lives as unified stories … is the only way we can hope to live out our time other than as tragedy.” Lively describes the frustrations of autobiographical memory in old age. “The novelist in me—the reader, too—wants shape and structure, development, a theme, insights,” she writes. “Instead of which, there is this assortment of slides, some of them welcome, others not at all, defying chronology, refusing structure.” After reading the stories in “Stone Mattress,” by Margaret Atwood, who is now seventy-five, I began to question my portrayal of old age as a time for the tying up of loose ends; as one reviewer wrote, Atwood’s stories depict “the stored-up rancour that one can amass over the years.” Many of her characters express a desire for revenge over reconciliation.
I’m not alone, among my generation, in falling into this trap of positive stereotyping. A friend my age who is in medical school recently chose to specialize in geriatrics, and over drinks with some other doctors she was asked why. “Because I love old people,” she replied. “I like hearing their stories and what they have to say about the world.” One of the doctors made a dismissive sound. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “Old people are just regular people who happen to be old.” My friend stuck with geriatrics, but realized that she had been fostering an idealized notion of the elderly. “At the end of the day,” she told me, “an old person can be just as trying as any other person; just as messy, just as unthankful.” She has also become wary of her instinctual empathy impulse when dealing with elderly patients. In this, she draws on the academic work of Kate Rossiter, who advocates fostering “ethical responsibility” rather than empathy in medical practitioners. “There’s something almost greedy about empathy, because it relies on the notion that we can somehow assimilate the other,” my friend explained. “A respectful and thoughtful distance is also part of what enables us to respond to the other’s needs.”
A few years before he died, at the age of eighty-nine, the literary critic Frank Kermode wrote that “the young know nothing directly about old age and their inquiries into the topic must be done blind.” Perhaps this is why younger artists seem to get waylaid by the same tropes: we are sometimes tempted to imagine old age as one big, funny, wisdom-rich adventure, with the comic caper a stalwart of the form, from the film “Grumpy Old Men” to the novel (and later film) “The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared” (one film critic has dubbed this genre Old People Behaving Hilariously). At the other extreme are the mind-disease psycho-dramas that we might call Old People Behaving Terrifyingly—recent novels like “The Farm” or “Elizabeth is Missing,” or the films “Iris” or “The Iron Lady.” As Sally Chivers argues in “The Silvering Screen: Old Age and Disability in Cinema” (2011), “in the public imagination … old age does not ever escape the stigma and restraints imposed upon disability.”
There are notable exceptions, of course, and too many to mention in full here. Lynne Segal, the author who warned against the negative impact of stereotypes of old age, admires the work of Julian Barnes. Even as a young writer, she believes, he had an uncanny ability to write old age well. Perhaps this is because he is a “thanataphobe,” as he puts it in his recent memoir, “Nothing to Be Frightened Of” (published when he was sixty-two); that is, he is more afraid of death than of old age, and so his elderly characters—in, say, “Staring at the Sun” (published when Barnes was forty)—are void, to Segal, of “any of the customary expressions of horror accompanying the portrayals of old age.” In this way, Barnes also manages to capture the unexpected indifference of many old people to death; as Lively has written, “Many of us who are on the last lap are too busy with the baggage of old age to waste much time anticipating the finish line.”
The Scottish writer Muriel Spark has also been commended by authors who are themselves elderly, including Lively and her fellow British novelist Paul Bailey, as proof that a young writer can successfully make a leap into the imagined territory of old age. Spark was only forty-one in 1959, when she published her novel “Memento Mori,” a black comedy about a group of nursing-home residents who begin receiving mysterious phone calls from an anonymous caller who announces portentously, as if it were unknown to them already, “Remember you must die.” Lively lauds the book for its “bunch of sharply drawn individuals, convincingly old, bedeviled by specific ailments, and mainly concerned with revisions of their past.” V. S. Pritchett, in an introduction to a 1964 edition of “Memento Mori,” praised Spark for taking on “the great suppressed and censored subject of contemporary society, the one we do not care to face, which we regard as indecent: old age.”
A more recent example is the thirty-seven-year-old Australian author Fiona McFarlane’s 2013 début novel, “The Night Guest.” McFarlane’s protagonist, Ruth, though succumbing to dementia and at the mercy of an unreliable caregiver, is capable of seeing beauty or taking great pleasure in her present—in a sexual encounter, for example—while also deriving equal parts enjoyment and pain from memories of her unusual past. She is neither hilarious nor terrifying. McFarlane says that, while writing Ruth, she thought of her as “an individual who, at seventy-five, is the sum of years of experience, memory, opinion, prejudice, decision-making, and desire.”
But why search for depictions of old age by the young when I should instead be seeking out narratives by natives of old age? I don’t mean the rich body of work by late-middle-aged authors, which tends to be more about the fear of aging than about the experience of old age itself (fiction by Martin Amis, for example, or, further back, T. S. Eliot’s poetry), but literature written by authors aged seventy-five and older.
I started off thinking that, beyond the well-known examples of Saul Bellow (whose final novel, “Ravelstein,” was published when he was eighty-five), Thomas Mann (who died at the age of eighty, and who supposedly claimed that old age was the best time to be a writer), May Sarton (called “America’s poet laureate of aging,” who died at the age of eighty-three), and John Updike (who died at the age of seventy-six, and who, in his final story collection, has a narrator musing, “Approaching eighty I sometimes see myself from a little distance, as a man I know, but not intimately”), the pickings would be fairly slim. Bellow’s own biographer mused, after the publication of “Ravelstein,” “Who are the other great writers who have done anything like this in their eighties?”
Frank Kermode summed up the problem: “Those who have had actual experience of old age are likely to be dead or very tired or just reluctant to discuss the matter with clever young interlocutors.” Philip Roth, for example, who is now eighty-two, decided to retire from writing at the age of seventy-eight, after the publication of his quartet of “Nemeses” novels, saying in an interview about fiction, “I don’t want to read any more, write any more of it, I don’t even want to talk about it anymore … I’m tired of all that work. I’m in a different stage of my life.”
But if you dig deeper the vista opens up, the voices multiply. My little sample may be idiosyncratic, and biased in favor of eloquence—these are elderly writers, all over the age of seventy-five, who clearly still have their wits very much about them. Yet their take on old age can perhaps offset some of the delusions and fantasies of people like me, who have not yet lived it for themselves. Each of the following three authors is alive and still writing prolifically, and was gracious enough to answer a few questions from me by e-mail.
The first is the British novelist Paul Bailey, who is seventy-eight, and who published his first novel, “At the Jerusalem,” at the age of thirty. It’s set in an institution for the elderly, and the main character, Faith, is a woman in her seventies, who Bailey says he purposefully did not make “likeable or sympathetic,” as he didn’t want her to be an object of pity. “I can’t begin to tell you how patronized and stereotyped the elderly were at that time: put-upon plaster saints were the dramatic order of the day,” he told me. Critics wondered why a young man would choose to write about the elderly in his first novel, but Bailey says he took inspiration from two other first novels by young male writers, also focussed on institutions of old age: Updike’s “The Poorhouse Fair” (1959) and William Trevor’s “The Old Boys” (1964). Bailey felt confident that his take on old age was grounded in real observation and experience, as his parents had been advanced in age when they had him, and he was later cared for by a much older couple. “I grew up among people who were getting on in years, so old age was never a frightening surprise to me,” he says. “I didn’t regard pensioners as a race apart.”
He remembers a mime class that he took when he was training to be an actor at London’s Central School, in the mid-nineteen-fifties. “We had to pretend to be old. Most of the students elected to bend their heads down and shuffle their feet. None of the old people I knew, especially my forbidding grandmother, walked or moved in this manner. My classmates were succumbing to easy caricature.” He doesn’t think much has changed today. “More sentimental rubbish has been written about the ‘plight of the elderly’ than I can bear to contemplate,” he wrotein a preface to a Guardian article in which he selected his top ten narratives of old age. (He praises work by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Alice Munro, and Stefan Zweig; the readers’ comments to the article are a good resource for anybody looking for further recommendations). And sentimentality can be pernicious. In a Paris Review interview, the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, who is now eighty, mentioned Flannery O’Connor’s warning: “She said that sentimentality is an attitude that does not confront reality squarely in the face. To feel sorry for handicapped people … is equivalent to hiding them.”
Bailey told me that he thinks some of the best depictions of old people “can be found in books and plays that aren’t specifically concerned with people getting old,” citing the memoirs of Sergei Aksakov, Maxim Gorky, and Leo Tolstoy, and the works of Balzac, Proust, Turgenev, Dickens, and Eliot, where the “old wander in and out”—for example, the “tender portrait” of Wemmick’s Aged Parent, in “Great Expectations.”
In 2011, Bailey published the novel “Chapman’s Odyssey,” in which an elderly male protagonist, lying ill in the hospital, is visited by people real and imagined: lovers, dead parents, characters from literature. It was inspired by Bailey’s own extended hospital stays, which he says he has come to enjoy “in a perverse way” because of the interesting people he meets there, “like the man who covers his breakfast cereal with anchovy essence.” Though the novel is about old age, he says he feels “younger for having written it.” He helped me pinpoint where I had perhaps gone wrong in my own imaginative attempt when he said, “I never, never thought I was tackling the ‘problem’ of old age. It was never a fictional problem for me. It was just another aspect of being alive, and human.”
The second writer who shared her thoughts with me is Fleur Adcock. If poetry, as Auden wrote, “might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings,” then the medium seems particularly suited to capturing the ambivalence of the old toward old age. The New Zealand-born British poet Adcock published her first collection when she was thirty, and she is now eighty-one. Like Lively, she says that old age began for her at the age of seventy, when she fell seriously ill for a period, though she says “a more honest but less tidy answer might be that it has been a very gradual process, with old age retreating and advancing unpredictably over the years.” She does remember feeling peculiar on realizing that, in her mid-seventies, she had outlived Yeats, whom she thought of as “that iconic ‘old poet,’ “ and who died at the age of seventy-three.
In her recent collection “Glass Wings” (2013), the picture she paints of old age is utterly eye-opening. Her elderly speakers are comfortable with technology but use it in ways particular to their needs. In “Match Girl,” the speaker asks, of her little sister,
But how can someone younger than me
have osteoporosis, and sit
googling up a substance that might
help it, or give her phossy jaw?
In “Alumnae Notes,” the speaker laments old school friends who have died or been lost to dementia, but then reasserts her connection to the present:
The class photos fade. But Marie and I,
face to face on Skype in full colour
and still far too animated to die,
can see we’ve not yet turned to sepia.
In “Mrs Baldwin,” the speaker describes the “muffled pang” of envy that clutches her whenever she hears that someone has been given a diagnosis of cancer. In “Having Sex with the Dead,” the speaker remembers past lovers: “The looks on their dead faces, as they plunge / into you, your hand circling a column / of one-time flesh and pulsing blood that now / has long been ash and dispersed chemicals.”
Adcock has known Jenny Joseph, the author of “Warning,” for many years, and says that Joseph is “fed up” with her iconic poem, written so long ago, when she was a young woman imagining old age (“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,” the poem begins). Joseph is now in her mid-eighties, and still publishing poetry. A recent poem by her, “A Patient Old Cripple,” makes a beautiful counterpoint to the earlier, blustering tone of “Warning” with its final lines: “I curse the world that blunders into me, and hurts / But know / Its bad fit is the best that we can do.”
The third writer I spoke to is the eighty-two-year-old Penelope Lively, who published her first book when she was thirty-seven, and who also often imagined elderly characters in her fiction when she was younger (in her novel “Moon Tiger,” for example, which won the 1989 Booker Prize). Her most recent novel, “How it All Began” (2011), revolves around an elderly female protagonist whose broken hip precipitates a series of random but significant collisions in the lives of others. She’s currently working on a set of short stories, many with elderly protagonists.
Lively has also chosen to share her view from old age in a memoir, “Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time,” from 2013. This is not a traditional memoir but a meditation on old age and memory. She takes pride in her right to speak of these things. “One of the few advantages of age,” she writes, “is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here.” She also highlights the importance of the mission: “Our experience is one unknown to most of humanity, over time. We are the pioneers.” She likes the anonymity that old age has given her; it leaves her “free to do what a novelist does anyway, listen and watch, but with the added spice of feeling a little as though I am some observant time-traveller.”
She is among the first true anthropologists of old age, both participant and observer. Many of her attitudes seem almost unimaginable to the young: for example, she’s not envious of us, she is still as curious as she always was, she doesn’t miss travel or holidays, she has become used to physical pain; she still has “needs and greeds” (muesli with sheep’s-milk yogurt, the daily fix of reading), but her more “acquisitive” lusts have faded. Most surprisingly, she insists that old age is not a “pallid sort of place,” that she is still capable of “an almost luxurious appreciation of the world.”
It sounds to me both wonderful and terrible, a permanent contradiction in terms, but perhaps this ambiguity is why, in her view, “memorable and effective writing about old age is rare … a danger zone for many novelists.” She singles out Kingsley Amis’s “Ending Up” for avoiding stereotypes of old age, by being “funny with a bleak undertone,” and the trilogy that Jane Gardam started writing in her mid-seventies and recently completed in her mid-eighties (“Old Filth,” “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” and “Last Friends”).
Lively is hopeful about any new interest in and awareness of old age, and thinks that, in part, the reason younger people find old age “more interesting than daunting” is because her demographic is “much more attuned to the times than … the old were in the past. We have mutated, and may have one toe still in 1950 but have an outlook very much of 2015.” The gap between generations is “closing up” in a way it wasn’t when she was young, she says. But when I asked her about the ethical responsibility younger authors have to depict old age realistically, she responded, “As a writer, you have to think—am I capable of this quantum leap of the imagination? If the answer is dubious—then don’t do it. Stereotyping is a kind of fictional abuse.”
As for what she thinks she got wrong when she was creating elderly characters as a younger writer, she says she wasn’t quite able, back then, to imagine the less dramatic physical aspects of being old: the constant pain from various forms of arthritis, the slow impairment of sight and hearing, and a “kind of instability,” a loss of balance “that would be unnerving if it came on suddenly, but, because it is gradual, you adapt.” With the elderly protagonist Claudia, in “Moon Tiger” (written when Lively was in her early fifties), she says, “I ducked the problem … by making her a mind rather than a body—she is dying in hospital, but not much is made of that, what you know of her are her thoughts and her memories.” What she believes she got right, however, is that Claudia’s mindset in old age is much the same as when she was young; this, she says, has been true to her own experience of getting older.
Why does literature about old age matter? A better question, perhaps, is one posed by John Halliday, the editor of the old-age-themed poetry anthology “Don’t Bring Me No Rocking Chair” (the title is taken from a Maya Angelou poem): “Who is calling the shots when it comes to aging?” For Halliday, it is the power of poetry to offer us a “fresh language” of old age that is so important. Lynne Segal agrees. Literature, she says, has the potential to give us texts in which “the experiences of the old unfold and collapse back, like concertinas, into narratives that are rarely reducible to age itself.” After all, as Sarah Falcus writes, “Literature does not … simply mirror or reflect a social world, but, instead, is part of and complicit in shaping that social world.”
For my part, I’m not sure I will return to my novel. It now strikes me as an exercise in speculative showing off: look at me, so young and hard at work imagining old age! I think I prefer to watch and learn as this “coming of old age” literature continues to explode in scope and scale, and listen closely to artists who, in their advanced years, “have the confidence to speak simply,” as Julian Barnes says. Forget the bildungsroman. We are on the cusp of the age of the reifungsroman—the literary scholar Barbara Frey Waxman’s term for the “novel of ripening.”
Everywhere I look now, I seem to stumble upon new writing about old age by those who are themselves old, personal and creative accounts of the many subcultures and subjectivities of old age, and I feel increasingly ashamed of my earlier ignorance of this blossoming body of work. My to-read list now includes stories by the ninety-six-year-old Emyr Humphreys; late work by Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, and Seamus Heaney; poetry by Elaine Feinstein, Dannie Abse, Maureen Duffy, and Ruth Fainlight; a new novel by the seventy-three-year-old Erica Jong, “Fear of Dying”; fiction by William Trevor, David Lodge, Kent Haruf, Toni Morrison, and Kenzaburo Oe; memoirs by Vivian Gornick, Roger Angell, and Diana Athill. It’s an exciting time, to have a brand-new feature of human experience—living longer—described by people as they live it, by people who have learned with age, as the late poet Adrienne Rich said, the year she turned eighty, to balance “dread and beauty.”