The signs of ageing are always taken to be the obvious ones like wrinkles, cataracts or greying hair. I know that for men the social attitudes to these things are different; a craggy brow and sinking jowls can produce a kind of grandeur in the male face that is much harder to replicate in women. In the not too distant future these physical signs of age may eventually be much reduced (or even eliminated) but this will not mean the end of ageing. In a less superficial sense ageing will always be with us.
“You’re as a young as you feel” is the common cry among those who feel that age is creeping up on them, and the unspoken (and rather pathetic) implied continuation of this phrase is “And I feel really young”.
The last thing I would want is to feel young again, even if this were possible. I remember only too well the lack of self confidence, tongue-tied indecision and general misery of being young. Youth has its positive side, but this is seldom apparent to the young themselves. Trying to find one’s place in the world is a fraught business at the best of times, and the problems of youth are many; young people adopt all sorts of absurd ideas; the adolescent whose legs are growing out of kilter with the rest of his body has an ungainly stride; and the embarrassing effects of a breaking voice on the pubescent male are a penance. Who would want to revisit these things? In contrast age brings a certain gravitas to even the most unlikely candidates.
Even if the passing years do not bring great wealth they bring a certain stability to one’s finances. The young always begin with nothing; wealth, influence, or the sense of acceptance at the lack of theses things – they all have to be acquired over the years. To most of us offspring come with the passage of time, and the trials of having a young family fade as one’s own children shake off the insecurities of youth and progress into adulthood.
The undoubted bodily vigour of youth is not something I would wish to retain or return to. This slowing down in physical activity is another sign of ageing that is likely to remain long after most other such indicators have been banished to the past. The middle-aged may retain a youthful appearance in the future, but I very much doubt they will ever run as fast. The sight of an 80 year old running the Marathon may become more common, but such a competitor will always come way down the field at the finishing line. The twenties are the most physically productive age, and I can see no likelihood of this ever changing.
A certain forgetfulness is a general feature of the ageing process, but that does mean we are all irredeemably stupid. Our brain mass may decrease as its age increases, but the number of wrinkles in the brain tissue grows exponentially. As the wrinkles signify knowledge, this produces the wisdom of age. We may forget more things as we age, but we have an awful lot more to forget. The young brain is a huge blank canvas; it has masses of potential but little content. Potential is a wonderful thing, but it would be sad if that was all an old brain had to offer. We have far less space to store new memories, but that is fair enough as we have little time left to acquire them.
Some people lose all their memories, and this seems sad; but if you don’t know that you have forgotten everything there is a certain seemliness about this. Senility has dropped out of the lexicon of ageing, to be replaced by dementia. This is a pity, because senility has a direct correlation with the concept of ageing, coming from the Latin word senex, an old man. Dementia merely means a loss of reason, which can occur at any age. Senility was used where now we would say an old person has Alzheimer’s. Not one in a hundred has any idea what are the precise symptoms of this disease, and the use of the term only obfuscates the condition. The non-specific term senile dementia was far preferable; we all recognise that it affects the old, but this malady is not an inevitable consequence of ageing.
Like it or not, ageing is something we are all going through. Fighting it is a pointless exercise. Rather than hanker after lost youth you should celebrate the signs of ageing; stop regarding yourself as a time-expired old has-been and return to the idea of the wise elder. You still have a lot to offer.