Getting On: Ageing, shame, and death, essay by Elisabeth Hanscombe

When I was a teenager in the mid-1960s surrounded by teachers who, to my mind, were well and truly getting on, I decided sixty would be a good age at which to die. Better to get out while I was ahead, still mobile and lucid. My parents were both a long way off sixty and in those days, time moved slowly. In those days, a year seemed like a decade.

In his book, Why time speeds up as you grow older, Douwe Draisma offers the analogy of time as a river. One person’s life can be measured by the pace of the river as it flows. In childhood and early years, the person manages to sprint alongside, and the river’s pace is slower by comparison. In middle years, the person slows down such that the river and person are evenly spaced in terms of pace. In later years and into old age, the person slows down more to the point the river now runs faster. Eventually the person stops, curls up on the riverbank and falls asleep, before dying. Meanwhile the river continues on its steady journey.

The cruelty of ageing, the way it saps you of the energy you once experienced as a child and young person, the way it brittles your bones, clogs your arteries, wrinkles your skin, is nothing compared to the way people who have reached beyond the age of sixty are relegated to a different category, even when so many of us who have reached well beyond our sixties, still work and hold significant places in the world.

That said, ageing has been helpful to me. It has given me a sense of how it must be for people who are different from the ‘mainstream’ by way of body shape or the colour of their skin or some obvious infirmity. As I age, I notice a look in young people’s eyes – and by young people, I mean those who like me in adolescence ruled out the people three decades ahead of them, as getting on, past it, and therefore not worthy of attention.

Attention is essential for survival and a lack of attention can be shaming. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips argues, ‘a shameful relation to anything is by definition, a determined narrowing of attention.’ A loss of curiosity. If in your old age you begin to feel ashamed about things over which you can do very little, including the condition of your body and mind, then you’re in trouble. And yet we shame those who are old, simply by reference to that fact, as if it is something for which they should apologise, in much the same way we sometimes shame small children for being small.

xxxxxPhillips again,

xxxxxThere is nothing less abstract, more visceral than feeling xxxxxashamed; and so, your powers of observation desert you. In an xxxxxuncanny narrowing of the mind, shame forecloses one’s attention.

When it comes to the uncanny, it’s worth revisiting Sigmund Freud’s paper on the subject. The uncanny, that which feels comfortable and appalling at the same time, like the yellow skim that forms on heated milk as it cools. Much as Freud experienced in his later years, when one day he found himself wandering the length of a train carriage at night. At one point, Freud looked towards the window and there he saw an old man in a smoking jacket and spectacles and was taken aback when he realised it was his own reflection. A shock of recognition at how he had aged, while inside he still felt as young as he had ever been. Most of those over thirty know this sensation, and it continues throughout life. The shame and the fear of ageing as a precursor to death.

In part it’s the generational tug. The fact that as people we are represented in layers, based not only on class and status but also on other aspects, like our age. Babies and young children tend to experience great pleasure in the company of older people, it seems because they have not yet learned to form the harsh judgements so easily incorporated into our mindsets as we age. Namely, that people belong in groups, according to age and skin colour, nationality and gender, sexual preference, and all manner of subtle dividers that cause us to treat one another in prejudiced ways. Some people will fare better or worse, depending on their category. Such judgements induce fear and shame, which according to the psychologist Phil Mollon, arises out of a ‘breach in the bond of empathy.’ Prejudicial judgements cause us to squander our capacity for compassion and take the road of moral superiority. As if those over sixty are somehow inferior to those who are younger. As if those over a certain age are past it.

In getting on, we become invisible well before we’re dead.  The reverse can also apply. The wisdom of old age can trump the freshness of youth as though anyone below a certain age should not be taken seriously. Witness the back lash against the teenage climate change activist, Greta Thunberg.

 

When I was a child and listened to the ailments of those who were getting on, I was appalled by the tiring and solipsistic nature of their conversation. Getting on myself now, three years off seventy, I find most such conversations fascinating, but only to the degree that, like a conversation about the weather – the great social lubricant – such conversations do not take up all the space.

For instance, the man I married over 42 years ago developed septicaemia in 2018 and nearly died. He spent seven weeks in hospital, flushed with a slew of antibiotics. He proved allergic to most of them, and the doctors were forever recalibrating his medications depending on whatever rash appeared on his skin; whatever problems affected his vision, whatever fevers erupted. Every symptom a side effect of the antibiotics. In time, the doctors managed to control the infection. They kept it held tight in its biosphere, a small ball covering the site of the infection that sat on the leads to a pacemaker some other doctors inserted ten years earlier, after my husband had suffered a heart attack.

Recovering from both conditions was not easy, but in his sixty ninth year following hospitalisation and partial recovery, my husband became depressed. There was a question as to whether his state of mind was a function of the illness itself, the seven long weeks in hospital, the wastage of muscles, or a melancholic personality.

My husband visited a gerontologist, a doctor in her thirties, who prescribed no changes to his medication. He needed it all, she said. The heart stuff to keep his heart going – no point in risking another heart attack – as well as a lifelong antibiotic to keep the infection around his heart in check. This antibiotic turns his urine a fluorescent pink, a colour that leaves you thinking he must be bleeding from some sort of internal radiated blood. It’s normal, the doctors say. In fact, if his urine goes back to the bright yellow it once was, then he’s in trouble.

Another aspect of getting on: this preoccupation with the state of one’s health and body. The sharing of bodily information, in which we imagine others are interested, when they’re not. It can be boring to those not travelling a similar path. Just as in younger stages of life we find ourselves preoccupied with the experience of pregnancy or buying a house – if we can afford it – or holding down a job, or struggling with babies, toddlers, and then adolescents.

Life has its stages. Get a group of people who are ‘getting on’ together and it’s nothing for each in turn to spend ages on the minute details of their various ailments. Just as I did now in relation to my husband. Our bodies matter in different ways as we get on. In youth we tend to focus more on the appearance of things; in older age we tend to focus more on our insides, on how our bodies function. We can obsess about it, whether or not our friends want to hear.

Ageing draws on our reserves as partners. Ideally, a couple grows old together but often one partner is older or more disabled than the other and this can lead to imbalances that put strains on relationships that have otherwise stood the test of time. My husband’s seven weeks in hospital not only took a toll on his energy and good will it also drained mine to a point of almost not being able to go on. I found myself torn between the demands of my everyday work life. I felt I needed to visit him at least twice daily to help stave off his despair. Then, when I visited, he was either too tired to endure anything but the lightest conversation, or else he stared at the foot of his bed, feeling hopeless at his plight. Over time he became depersonalised and lost his capacity to speak his mind. He became compliant. He did not want to trouble the medical staff. I had to fight for him. I had to try to get him home as often as possible in between treatments for respite. I had to try to stay as young as my body would allow to help offset his descent into disability and frail age.

It’s harder on people who are single. That said, Helen Garner writes of the relief she experienced when advanced age took her out of the marketplace of bodily beauty wherein men and women eye one another as potential partners; a marketplace that is not exclusively the domain of the very young but there comes a cut-off point, even in establishments for the elderly. And here Garner alludes to the shame and fear of feeling non-desirable. But a deeper fear on which shame can hinge is that of death, buried deep inside. No matter what our age, we’re on the clock. Our time is limited, and the older we get the less time we have.

My mother lived to her ninety fifth year. A good run most would say, but not my mother. She wanted to live to one hundred. Age was her achievement. Age and the number of her children and grandchildren.

I have noticed this tendency in older people and if I use my mother as a yard stick, a familiar pattern emerges. This toting up of life’s achievements towards the end of our days as if to remind ourselves we mean something. I see it, too, in the letters the Australian writer Gerald Murnane sends to me. He’s now 80 years old and we have corresponded for nearly fifteen years. During the early part of our correspondence Murnane’s ideas ranged widely but lately his letters have slipped into a long-winded boast, of his achievements against his earlier life when he saw himself as an unrecognised but significant writer. Like my mother, Murnane boasts of his good health. ‘My health astonishes even me,’ he writes and repeats again the fact that he, like my mother in the past, only needs one tablet a day for his blood pressure and otherwise no medication. Unlike my mother, he consumes two bottles of his strong home brew beer daily. And gets away with it. For my mother, her food pleasures were among the sweet foods, and an occasional glass of wine. But she was not one to overindulge. Nor is Gerald Murnane whose diet is strict and unusual by comparison to most people. ‘Lots of grains, nuts, seeds, pasta, olives and a bit of fruit each day but hardly any meat and no vegetables whatever except an occasional spring onion.’ This gives Murnane longevity he writes, along with his genes. Like my mother he swears by the power of his DNA. This tendency to want to live on for as long as possible. This reluctance to enter the realm of decrepitude, a prelude to death. Death the great equaliser we all face.

Before she died, I thought my mother might enter whatever lies beyond life effortlessly, but it was not so. People with strong Catholic convictions and a record of good behaviour can have trouble dying. You’d think they might be keen to shuffle off to Heaven, given their exemplary lives. But in the innermost recesses of their minds it seems, the closer they approach death the more they worry about the extent of their good deeds. Will they be sufficient to get them there? God Almighty knows about all the things the rest of us don’t know. The tiny sins we commit daily; our micro aggressions, which in the tally book of good and bad add up. My mother’s soul might not have been as clean as she would have liked. So even with the promise of Heaven ahead, my mother had her doubts about her goodness. She fought against her dying.

I am not religiously inclined, but like the broadcaster Phillip Adams, I hope I’m awake when I die. I’m curious to know what it might be like. Who wants to be crippled by the one great terrifying inevitability of all our lives, the thing to which our ageing points us, the thing that shames us most of all, our death?

My father died at 65, and although everyone agreed he died young, they put it down to extenuating circumstances – three packets of Craven A filter tipped cigarettes a day, and a regular bottle of St Agnes brandy. He did not suffer the same scruples as my mother it seems. He almost welcomed death as a relief from his pain but did not spend long enough in old age to feel its deepest effects.

Is our view on ageing gendered as evidenced in the entertainment industry where female actors beyond a certain age are soon passed over while more men can attract jobs well into their old age? I noticed this from my earliest days. Older men are distinguished. Older women are haggard. It begins early.

 

When my Opa arrived for a six-week holiday from Holland during my tenth year, I stood back in awe at the smoothness of his bald head. Flecks of silver in his narrowing blue eyes glinted behind thin wire spectacles that had a habit of slipping down his nose. They gave him a stern look that frightened me.

We sat in church one Sunday, my family in a long line at Our Lady of Good Counsel. Two small boys in the row ahead of my grandfather were jibbing one another, fingers in ribs, a stint of pushing and pulling. Low tittering. Their parents ignored them, but my grandfather, a devout Catholic who took all matters of church attendance seriously, picked up his black missal and tapped it on the head of each boy, one after the other.

The boys looked around, aghast at the assault. They were silent thereafter, cowed by the old man who sat behind them glowering. Old age could be powerful, I thought then, especially when it wore a suit and a harsh expression. But it was different when I visited my friend Patricia who lived with her family in a rooming house in St Kilda, which her mother owned and managed.

I stayed on weekends with Patricia sometimes in this house whose multiple rooms and personalities stay with me. Most striking of all, was Patricia’s grandmother whom the family called Bunty and lived in an upstairs room alone.

From time to time Patricia and I talked to Bunty. Her skin was wrinkled like the shell of a pink sea creature and her body almost folded over in the wheelchair in which she spent her days. Her eyes beamed whenever we visited.

Other times, Bunty was considered a nuisance. I could tell by the manner in which Patricia’s mother talked about her. Her elderly mother was treated like an unwanted pet which had to be sent elsewhere when the family planned to make one of their many trips to Noumea. I had never heard the term ‘elder abuse’ then, but it comes to me now.  Or ‘benign’ neglect.

I may be guilty of this with my own mother, by the time she reached into her nineties and could no longer comfortably leave the retirement village in which she lived. I baulk at the memory of how she could not come to the wedding of one of my sister’s children as she would have required too much attention from my sister on the day and my sister had no time.

We treat old people in a way that’s reminiscent of how we treat babies and small children, nuisances who must be kept away from the action. Who must be sequestered into places where other folk are paid to care for them, so they will not interfere with the smooth running of the busy world in which most of us live. And even within the institution, inmates can become institutionalised depending on the rigidity or otherwise of the programs employed to keep them occupied. We treat old age as a disability and like all disabilities we want it hidden from view. We ghettoise those who are really ‘getting on’. Clustered together so they can compare ailments or lose their memories even faster in the absence of stimulation.

Though there are other more hopeful signs of improvement in the you tube clips you can watch of nursing homes where they set up regular play groups for small children so the elderly and young can mix. The older people’s eyes light up at the sight of those youngsters who are not fearful of old age.

 

My first encounter with old age at close quarters came in the form of the nuns who taught me at school. Concealed beneath habits, and slow to move, the nuns seemed ageless. Like sex, ageing then was a given and not open for discussion. Joan Didion alludes to this in her memoir, Blue Nights:

xxxxxAging and its evidence remain life’s most predictable events, xxxxxyet they also remain matters we prefer to leave unmentioned, xxxxxunexplored: I have watched tears flood the eyes of grown xxxxxwomen, loved women, women of talent and accomplishment, xxxxxfor no reason other than that a small child in the room, more xxxxxoften than not an adored niece or nephew, has just described xxxxxthem as ‘wrinkly’, or asked how old they are.

xxxxxWhen we are asked this question, we are always undone by its xxxxxinnocence, somehow shamed by the clear bell-like tones in xxxxxwhich it is asked. What shames us is this: the answer we give is xxxxxnever innocent. The answer we give is unclear, evasive, even xxxxxguilty … there must be a mistake: only yesterday I was in my xxxxxfifties, my forties, only yesterday I was thirty-one.

 

You can always tell the age of a woman by the state of her elbows and of her neck, or so my mother told me. Old necks turn to turkey flesh and pucker. Elbows take on the look of sphincters, those muscle-bound orifices that are best left concealed.

I do not make a habit of studying women’s necks and elbows but the thought remains embedded in my brain as if it is yet another aspect of being alive that I must overcome: cover my neck and my elbows so no one else will notice, the fact of my ageing.

More and more we read about it, not just the stuff on the surface, the stuff underneath, the dried out vagina that no longer offers those delicious hormonal secretions to make sexual desire drip with pleasure; the creaks in muscles especially those that form part of your back and hips, the ones that help you to stand upright, to walk and to run.  The cracking of your bowels and the occasional reflux from your gut that tells you even down there, where the food is received and expelled, things no longer work so well.

My mother told me once, you can always tell which women have spent too long in the sun. Their skin turns to gravel, pocked and pitted like the stones on a riverbed but not so smooth.

My mother told me about her aunt who wrote a letter from Holland about a prolapse. As a child I imagined my great-aunt’s insides running out through the wee-hole below. I could see her on the dance floor, her insides trailing from under her ball gown, like so many red jewels.

It happens when you get older, my mother told me. And when you have children, too many children like she did, your stomach muscles lose their elasticity and you need to wear girdles or supports to keep them in place, otherwise you flop all over the place like so much custard.

My mother told me, the worst part of growing old was the invisibility of it all.  People do not look up when you shuffle into a room. People do not offer a smile of admiration when you wear a new dress or perfume, when you spread lipstick across your lips the way she did when young and able to command attention.

You slip back into the place of childhood, into that place where you might stand longest in the cue because the person serving has not noticed you there huddled over in your thick coat to keep warm. The greyness of your hair merges with the colour of the sky on a winter’s day, which becomes a type of Ground Hog Day when it slows itself into a predictable routine.

Nothing new happens from one minute to the next just the tedium of getting dressed each morning, of showering with assistance and of getting yourself to meals in the retirement village where you can no longer have conversations because you and all the people around you repeat things again and again as if you had not already said them. Those in the dining room together with you are too hard of hearing, and too lacking in short term memory to be able to chat.

My mother told me you slip out of the spotlight once you’re old and even your children begin to forget you, other than as an obligation that they must honour once a year on Mother’s Day and if you’re lucky on your birthday, but hardly ever at Christmas anymore because they’re too busy tending to their own.

Look at you in the mirror there. No longer smooth skinned and full of life. And when you meet someone for the first time in ages, the thought goes through your mind as fast as it goes through theirs: You’ve aged.

As if it were a crime. A crime of indecency, an insult to others, but most of all to yourself. To get on, to grow old.

There’s also an upside. As in Jenny Joseph’s fabulous poem, ‘When I am old, I shall wear purple,’ and do all those things I could not do when I was young for fear of my shame.

That is, if my body will let me and I can afford it.

My mind as well. Not that body and mind are separate though it can feel that way.

My writing informed over the years through my reading not only of the classics but more recently by contemporaries begins to have an old-fashioned ring in my ear. Not quite Dickensian in its style but bordering on something that shows my age. They used to suggest you could tell whether a woman had written a piece of prose as against a man, and many a woman disguised her identity behind a man’s name in order to pass herself off as the real thing, a good writer. This because women for a long time and continuing are deemed second rate in the literary world, which still holds its patriarchal edge.

Lately I have wondered whether age is a feature, too. Can you tell the age of a person in the writing? It’s easier to do so with memoir. We date ourselves the moment we set words on the page. We date ourselves as soon as we begin to describe our childhood homes. Lately I’ve read pieces where the person was a ten-year-old in the mid-seventies.  It’s easy to guess their age now. They’re are on the edge of extinction.

 

Those of us born in the fifties and sixties and earlier are already flipping over the edge. It’s the same with fashion. There is an optimal time when yesterday’s fashions, clothes that were at the height of popularity only five years ago, are now passé, so embarrassingly out of date you might only wear them to a fancy-dress party.

Something from the 1930s or earlier becomes fashionable again in a retro sort of way. You wear it with pride. But for those of us in between we begin to give off an aura of too-old-to-be-fashionable, but not old enough to be hip. And that’s before any of the publishing industry or people who promote writing have laid eyes on us.

Things tend to go downhill fast, though not always. There are a few writers over the age of sixty who come to the fore as they are emerging. Others, like Helen Garner, now in her seventies, we’ve grown old with. She exists as a writer over many decades young and hip in her formative years and now sage and persuasive. But it’s not so easy when you take to writing later in life and by the time you have reached a publishable standard find you’re too old to count.

I asked a few friends about their lives as emerging writers, those over fifty, but given that fifty is the new forty I preferred to concentrate on those like me who have entered into their sixties and beyond. We are the ones who halfway through a century are truly on the scary side of life.

Now that I have reached beyond sixty and I’m not as frail and tired as I had anticipated, I find I’m far from ready to die. Even as I write this, I fear I’m whingeing in an unfashionable way about my lot. What if I become invisible as do so many women, and these days even men, beyond a certain age, where we are thought to be doddering?

 

When I was a young woman and starting out in my chosen career as a social worker, I longed to be older. Only then I thought would I be taken seriously. Now I am older and can command a degree of authority in my work as a therapist I find myself cowering in my writing life, almost fearful to go out to literary events because I’m too old. Yet, let’s face it, the Melbourne Writers Festival, for instance, is filled to the rafters with women, and fewer men of my demographic.

So why the shame? Why the feeling I must hide my face and its wrinkles inside the pages of a book? Why hesitate to talk about myself as an emerging writer, when the word ‘emerging’ comes as Alexis Harley writes like a butterfly. For others like Maris Morton, a writer who won the Cal Scribe Prize for an unpublished manuscript on the cusp of seventies, her age was an advantage in so far as journalists could include that detail in the pitch.

An old woman who writes well and wins prizes. Not many prizes for the young other than those few literary awards offered to people, mostly men who have accumulated a wealth of writing success over the decades and can now be deemed distinguished. We old and emerging writers can only continue to emerge, halfway out of our cocoons into the sunshine. And as everyone knows butterflies only live for a short while before their beautiful lives are snuffed out.

 

The idea of ageing first hit me as an adolescent when my skin erupted and my body lost its shape.  In those days I wanted it to happen fast.  I wanted to get beyond the awkwardness of pimples to the dignity of the women on the television screen who smoked cigarettes, their fingers poised in the air, the last one perched like an alluring question mark.

Such a gesture, while I sat curled up in a ball and watched television, checking underneath my finger nails for dirt I could never be rid of and then digging my fingers into the flesh of my thighs that seemed to have magnified in the space of a single school term.

It triggers such washes of jealousy, this business of being an ageing and emerging writer.  Whenever the next young person wins an award of significance, I think back to when I was her age and paid scant attention to writing.

Why did I leave it so late?  Too late to ponder now, but still the thought rankles.

I could not write then what I write now and yet, there are these young people who stun me with their capacity and wisdom, despite their years.

I live and work in a world of women, everyone of us dogged by an internal discussion that runs along the lines, am I good enough? Am I too young, too old?  Accustomed to being looked at and measured on where we fit in the beauty scales of another’s desire, it’s hard to allow for a conversation about those inner voices.

But, I hear them all the time, in a conversation with my writing group the other evening for instance, when one woman reflected on her memories of growing up and her longing that one day someone would come along and hand her a pile of money with which she might buy herself a flash wardrobe. An adolescent fantasy she wanted to explore in her writing.

 

I, too, dreamed of someone coming along, but not so much to give me money for clothes as to recognise my talent for singing. He’d come around to the back garden where I pegged clothes to the line.

This person, a movie-making man would recognise my singing from the front street as he walked by and he would ring on the door bell and ask my mother for an introduction or he would walk down the side drive way to approach me directly, my arms filled with washing.

‘You have the voice of an angel,’ he would say. ‘Come with me and I will make you famous. Such a voice should not be kept hidden.’

I glowed under the weight of his praise and the daydream went on and on until every last sock was pegged on the line. When the basket was empty I lifted it to my hip looked longingly up the drive way for the man who would arrive only in fantasy and took myself back to the television set where I curled up in my chair and wished once again to get inside the television with all the glamorous people. I comforted myself with five slices of bread, three with golden syrup, and the rest with cocoa sugar.

Those were the days in which my desire to die at sixty seemed a reasonable compromise. I did not bargain then on my desire to live on despite the ravages of age. Ending this essay is tough. However much my age might shame me, however fearful I am of death, I still have things to say.

 

Elisabeth Hanscombe, who blogs at http://www.sixthinline.com, is a psychologist and writer in Melbourne Australia. In 2012 She completed her doctorate on the topic, Life writing and the desire for revenge, and has published several short stories, essays and book chapters in the areas of trauma, shame, psychoanalysis and memory, including a childhood memoir, The Art of Disappearing (2017).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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