“The Good Old Days”: The Western Anti-Aging Message

by Maxine Kozak, Storyteller for RU Student Life

At nineteen years old, I am terrified of growing old. Even if it is decades away, it is something that crosses my mind often. I am hyper-aware of the passage of time, often fixating on how I may be wasting it. If I decide to stay home on a Friday night, I think about how I am wasting my youth. If I cancel a date, I think about how if I don’t find someone to love while I am young and attractive, I’m going to die alone.

These fears are not unique or unusual. Particularly in Western society, we are taught that the desirable person is young and attractive. We fear aging because we fear the related loss of beauty and value. There is this overwhelming narrative that every experience that is worthwhile occurs during youth.

This anti-aging message permeates through every creative industry: music, film and television, fashion and literature. We see beautiful, young people doing incredible things. We are marketed products that promise to “revitalize” and “transform”. Aging isn’t just a biological process — it’s a deeply ingrained fear in our culture.

While everyone is immersed in and no doubt affected by the culture in which we live, it doesn’t influence everyone in the same way. For women, beauty and the body overwhelmingly determines our value. We are constantly subject to the male gaze. If we don’t meet certain (often Eurocentric) beauty standards, we are ignored at best and harassed or assaulted at worst. And it’s even more complex for trans and gender non-conforming folks whose bodies are constantly up to scrutiny in a patriarchal society. In contrast, a cisgender man’s body is often judged for its perceived masculine strength.

These underlying societal values reduce humans to a single characteristic that will no doubt diminish with age and thus, we can assume, so will our worth. However, there is more than one kind of beauty, more than one kind of strength. We are conditioned to believe that our physical beauty and strength define who we are, thereby damaging our pursuit of what is really important — the “inner beauty” and strength that comes with wisdom and compassion.

Psychologist Erik Erickson explained, “lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilization does not really harbour a concept of the whole life”. That is to say, we have this general framework to follow throughout adolescence. We go to school, graduate, find a job, but then what? The narrative ends, and we’re left only with memories of “the good old days”.

In this sense, the elderly are portrayed as the walking dead. We are taught that after a certain age, our lives are over. And how can we not be afraid of that? In western society, the elderly are routinely abandoned, isolated and even abused. They are not seen as valuable — perhaps because they cannot produce anymore, in a capitalist sense — and thus, they are dehumanized.

But, there are a number of examples of healthy attitudes and practices around the aging process around the world. For one, elders in Korea are highly respected. In Korea, you celebrate “Hwangap” on an individual’s 60th birthday — an occasion where the passage into old age is commemorated.

The teachings of Indigenous peoples are another great example. Many Nations practice a deep acceptance of aging and death as a part of life. More than that, Elders are understood to pass down their knowledge through generations. Elders are held in high regard as teachers.

I feel hopeful that in Western society, some people are working for change. After a study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross revealed that over nine million adults in the UK are often or always lonely, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness was launched in the UK. The commission “works to address the impact loneliness has on so many different sections of society, focusing on the positive action we can all take to recognize it, build connections and help ourselves and/or others”.

The commission has done incredible work since it began in 2016. For example, they have influenced the establishment of a home share scheme in the UK that matches an older person with a younger person in need of somewhere economical to live. In return for keeping an older person company, a home sharer received a low cost accomodation.

BBC News interviewed two housemates with a 68-year age gap, Florence (age 95) and Alexandra (age 27). According to Florence, she wanted to do it because she was very lonely and because she believes we all need companionship.

“In a way, it was quite frightening because you don’t know, are you going to fall? Is something going to happen to you? Also, you’re bored to tears. You’re used to leading an active life and suddenly there is nothing,” Florence explains. “So it’s very important to have somebody coming in and out of the house, somebody to talk to instead of sitting here looking at four walls”.

Since the Jo Cox Commission released their final report in December 2017, “Combating loneliness one conversation at a time”, reflecting what they have learned over the past year and what needs to happen next, a new ministerial role has been established within the Government of the United Kingdom. The Minister for Loneliness will deal with resolving social problems related to loneliness at the recommendation of the Jo Cox Commission to develop a government-wide strategy. On January 17th 2018, Tracey Crouch, a British politician was named the first incumbent.

In the United States, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) was founded in 1958. It is a non-profit interest group that focuses on the elderly and “empowers people to choose how they live as they age”. The group works to help the elderly navigate not only finance and health, but also how to contribute to society and live a full life.

AARP released a video on Youtube in 2016 to disrupt millenial views of the aging process. Initially, millenials were asked what age they considered “old”. The responses ranged from 40–60 years old. Later, they were introduced to a variety of people aged 50+. After meeting and engaging with people they previously considered “old”, everyone gained perspective. When asked again what age they considered “old”, the responses ranged from 80–100 years old.

One of the participants, Parvati, age 70, summed it up perfectly, explaining, “there’s so many things I still want to do and there’s so many things that I can do. As long as I’m growing and learning, then age doesn’t matter”.

Aging doesn’t have to be this big, scary thing. We can only uproot these fears by having honest conversations about how we feel, deconstructing these feelings and finding their roots in societal norms. It comes back to that existential conversation. What do you live for? Where do you find meaning? For me, it’s about growth and connection — striving to do better, for myself and others. At our core, we’re afraid of the same things. We need to practice vulnerability, being open about our fears.

Our cultural perspective dictates our experience of getting older. After all, we are products of the society in which we live. We revere youth and so aging has become a shameful experience. If we want to change ourselves, we have two options: ignore the message (which just isn’t realistic — the message is everywhere) or work to change it. We need to develop new ways of thinking about the process of aging and new accommodations to ensure the safety and happiness of everyone, regardless of age.