Growing Older Without Feeling Old

Rudi Westendorp (trans. David Shaw)

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In the previous century, human existence underwent a radical change. There has been an explosion of life —never before have so many people in the developed world lived for so long. It is the most drastic of the changes wrought in our society by the Industrial Revolution. Within a period of about a hundred years, average life expectancy rose from 40 to 80 years, and the likelihood of reaching the age of 65 increased three-fold, from 30 to 90 per cent. Pensioners have also made great gains; rather than ten, they can now look forward to twenty years of leisure when they retire. And then there is Madame Calment, the French lady who reached the grand old age of 122 in 1997. Babies born today can expect to live even longer; there is little doubt that some will live to be 135 years old.

All these additional years have not come to us because of a change in our bodies — whether by genetic manipulation or any other means. No, our bodies are essentially the same as they always were. Our greatly increased longevity is the emphatic result of the enormous changes we have made to our environment. Unlike before, everyone in the West now has enough to eat, we have clean drinking water available straight from the tap, and many infectious diseases have been eradicated. In addition, the chance of being killed by (military) violence has been reduced to a minimum. So it is no wonder that we no longer die in childhood, and almost everyone reaches old age. Our ability to intervene ever more effectively to counteract the effects of illness or ageing means we are living even longer.

However, our emotional and social adaptation to this revolution lags very much behind. We are truly entrenched in outdated patterns. Who brings their children up in the realistic expectation that they will reach the age of 100? What parents simply shrug off the news that their son or daughter has failed to make the grade and will have to repeat a year at school? Rather than trying to prepare their children for life in the space of just twenty years, parents today should be teaching them that learning is a lifelong process, given that they’ll need to be able to cope with circumstances that are constantly changing. And what will they themselves do, once their children are grown up? The time when we lived and worked solely to provide for our children, before retiring from professional and public life, is definitively over. Now, parents of children who have flown the nest wrestle with the question of how to fill the rest of their long lives.

This is not unfamiliar to me, as a 55-year-old. Longevity is partly determined by genetics, and, with a maternal grandmother who lived to 99, I may well reach the age of 90, or even 100. Horror! What am I going to do for the next twenty years, with two grown-up daughters who get along in life excellently by themselves? Of course, I’m glad I didn’t die young, and I look forward to a carefree old age. At the same time, I can see the end of my life looming ominously ahead, and I wonder if I will weather the storm well or not.

A long life is an impressive achievement, but it is also a frightening prospect. Am I doomed to spend my final years with failing eyesight and hearing, stiff and incontinent? Or are these just the normal fears of a man in his fifties, thinking things can only go downhill from here? 

Growing Older Without Feeling Old Rudi Westendorp (tr. David Shaw)