This is a fairy story. Sort of. Many moons ago, elderly people in Western society were respected, looked after by families in their old age, and were considered a part of the family and a valued member of the community.
But then the Wicked Witch waved her rather morose wand and shunted us to the future where today senior members of the community in Western nations are considered past it (although what “it” is I’m never quite sure), and shunted off to retirement villages, retirement homes or nursing homes. More latterly, senior citizens gave found themselves demonised for having the temerity to live past 65 and claim a pension. Greedy, selfish bastards, continuing to bludge off the younger generation and not popping their clogs once they have, supposedly, outlived their usefulness.
Do I want to go back to the past? Not on your life. I don’t have idealistic notions of the past where life was tough for women, where domestic violence was condoned, where gay people could be beaten up and have no redress or were blackmailed, where pregnant women with no access to abortion if needed had to resort to the pain and shame of back street abortions, where the abour-saving devices which make life so much easier today didn’t exist, where married women had to stay at home. But not all advances are for the better and the treatment of today’s elderly is all too often pretty bloody awful.
You’ll understand that I have a vested interest in this question of how senior citizens are regarded as I have entered their ranks. I don’t feel 65, and I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way. You’re only as old as you think you are and I think I got stuck at six years old. I’ve seen young people older than their age because they’ve become stultified in their approach to life. And I’ve seen Golden Oldies who are younger than their years because they still think young and live young.
I started thinking about this whole question of the position of seniors in today’s society after watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel again. It’s even better the second time around (do see it if you haven’t already), but what has stuck in my mind was the idea of sanctuary for “the elderly and beautiful”. I don’t think I can recall an occasion when elderly people in either Australia or Great Britain, my stamping grounds, have been called “beautiful” and I thought using such a gorgeous word for the elderly was pretty damned good.
I mean, why shouldn’t the elderly be beautiful? And by “beautiful”, I don’t mean awe and wonder about men and women who look pretty chipper in old age, or who get admired for looking “younger than their years” or who fake youth through plastic surgery, botox injections and so on. To me, this is all too often a reflection of the worship of youth and reinforces the fear of getting older. I find beauty in faces that are well-lived and reflect the experiences of people bearing these faces. One of the loveliest faces I’ve seen is that of a very old woman, it is heavily lined but the light in her eyes and the wisdom that radiates from her are awe-inspiring.
Here in North Cyprus, for instance, there is a mix of modern and more traditional societies. You see young women wearing modern fashions, along with young women wearing traditional clothing of head covering, long skirt and long-sleeved top, or you see young women with head covering but trendy tops and leggings. Whatever your choice is, it rocks. But this is a society not obsessed with age, and so you see elderly women who aren’t done up to the nines, who look older than Western women for their age, but who are still part of the community and aren’t shunted off to retirement villages or homes or nursing homes.
At the last festival held here, Kyrenia Belideye (council) paid special attention to the elderly in the community in recognition of the fact that the younger generation stands on their shoulders and they should be shown respect and support. Council members visited elderly people and offered gifts and good wishes and you often find other councils holding functions for seniors to honour their work and position in society.
Not so these days in Western nations. This was brought home to me when I had the misfortune to travel on the Underground during the rush hour in London. It was terrifying. I have some mobility issues, need to use a walking stick, and was quite tired by the end of the day. I felt like I was invisible as people rushed past me, pushed me aside or glared at me for not walking fast enough. In the end, I had to walk right by the wall and my husband walked behind me and slightly to my right to protect me.
I’ve read about inhumane treatment of the elderly in nursing and retirement homes both in Australia and the UK, and it stands in such contract to the treatment of elderly people in more traditional societies, such as the Islamic society where I live in North Cyprus. Too often Islam gets condemned because of the actions of a very few fundamentalists. But in Islam it is considered part of the natural order to care for older generations and the idea of sticking elderly family residents into retirement homes is considered quite weird. In British nursing homes, for example, it’s rare to find residents of the Islamic religion.
Of course no-one wants to go back to a situation where you got stuck with ghastly relatives who clung to you like limpets and drained you dry by their vampire-like treatment of you. I guess what I’m talking about is a need to recognise that you might be a Golden Oldie but you are still very, very beautiful and you deserve respect for having lived life and survived. Although, being a Libran and looking at both sides of the equation, I do have to put the whole case – you earn respect, it’s not just given to you, so I don’t have much truck with grumpy old people who think the world owes them a living just because they’re old. It’s wisdom and mutual respect for younger generations which earns you the right to be regarded as a community Elder.
I started this a while back and wanted to edit it, so gave myself time to step back a bit and revise the original. So I was delighted to see in our local paper , Cyprus Today, an interview with Billy Connolly who is part of the cast of the new movie, Quartet, about four retired opera singers. He says, and I thoroughly agree with his words, that the notion of growing old gracefully is one he rails against:
“I think disgraceful is the way to do it; be a nuisance, stay alive. In Britain you’re encouraged to wear a cardi and have the crotch of your trousers away down at your knees – bum fainters they call it in Scotland, because if you look at it from behind it looks as though your bottom’s fainted.
“You’re constantly told to grow up. ‘Grow up, it’s time you grew up, you’ve got some growing up to do boy’, they say. What they really mean is, get boring, stop being angry, stop being interesting and stop being a nuisance.
Isn’t “being beige” a lovely word to describe becoming a boring old fart?
And yes, I’ve taken my motto from the Ulysses motorcycle club in Australia for the over-55s: “Grow old disgracefully.” The more who do so, the merrier.
It’s why I’m still a wild woman and crazy crone, and I do my utmost to live up to those monikers!