It’s a funny thing, getting old.
If you’ve been married and had children and if you are a woman, you reach a certain age when you realize that all those years you invested in other people – your spouse/partner, your kids, your aged parents, your friends – all that time you gave away willingly and with no thought for yourself – where has it got you? You wake up one day and look in the mirror and the person you thought you were has vanished. Looking back at you is someone you don’t recognize. She may be the spitting image of your mother – always a shock, or you may just see an old woman. You never expect to see an old woman, although you know there are a lot of them around. But you? Never.
Inside you, as you gaze amazed at the old biddy blinking back at you, you feel twenty five. Yes, it’s true. Inside you are always younger, sometimes by decades. But no-one else sees that. They may say nice things like: ‘Oh, but you have such a young voice on the phone…’ – meaning that when they meet you in the flesh, they are horrified at the contradiction; young voice, old bag? Very confusing. The best one is: ‘You are as young as you feel!’ That’s usually said by a smug young woman behind the cosmetic counter, when you are on your knees begging for face cream.
Then the time comes for you to deal with your retiring partner/spouse and by retiring, I don’t mean shy. The change that happens to a man’s personality when he stops work is akin to a boxer who’s been beaten to a pulp but refuses to lie down, making everyone within a gnat’s breath of him suffer unbearably at the sight of his pain. And pain it certainly is. There are moods and sulks and depressions and the: ’What shall I do now?’ syndrome. He starts to walk three steps behind you, looking mournful and rejected on a daily basis. So you wrack your brains to find him things to do, just like you did for your kids when they were bored. You suggest a house make-over. He dutifully follows you around B&Q while you choose the paint. He has no opinion of colour - ‘I don’t mind, dear. Whatever you want is okay by me…‘ he mutters. You chose beige because that’s how you feel.
He paints the sitting room in total silence. He doesn’t want the radio on because it might distract him. He needs to concentrate. After all, he didn’t have the radio on when he was in his office, did he? So your one weakness, Radio 4, is forbidden. A friend rings and invites you over for lunch. O joy! A bit of respite. But he looks at you askance. Going out? What about his lunch? If he’s painting, he can’t be expected to make a sandwich, can he? He has to have you in the house, in case anything goes wrong. What can go wrong? Well, he might not know where to find things. Things? Yes. His wallet. His mobile. His watch. Another paint brush… (Of course, my beloved hubby is nothing like this!)
After a year or so, you drift into a new way of being with this person you were once so comfortable with. You are now living with a retired old age pensioner, who doesn’t want to be a retired old age pensioner. Inside his head, he’s about eighteen. That’s why when you mention the word downsizing, he looks as if you’ve told him you want a sex change. The thought of all the work involved in moving house, when he could be on the golf course is enough to give him a stroke. And as for sex? At eighteen he didn’t have to work at it. Why should he work at it now? You don’t talk about it, let alone attempt it. That would be too silly. Occasionally, when you feel really angry, you leave a woman’s magazine on his bedside table, with the page open at an article entitled: ‘Sex In Old Age Can Be Wonderful!’ He gets into bed, picks up the magazine, closes it and hands it to you: ‘My, you are getting forgetful, leaving your things on my bedside table. Having a senior moment, were you?’ (Of course, my beloved hubby is NOTHING like this!)
And so the years roll by. You continue to have this anxious feeling that you don’t ‘fit’ anywhere any more. Age Concern coffee morning? No, thank you. Charity shop assistant? No! Church flower arranging? Bugger off! But this attitude also makes you feel guilty. You should be able to step gracefully into the groove as society expects. You should have extraordinary patience; a sweet disposition, be the perfect granny and the perfect wife to a grumpy, miserable old sod. But the heartburn, the constipation and the aching joints don’t help. It’s all part of those jolly years that take you inexorably closer to your demise. The years that Saga tells you are the best ones, now the kids have gone and the mortgage is paid – full of exciting holidays running across beaches with some handsome, grey-haired bloke who’s dentures never fall out and who never farts in public.
Wake up! The mortgage will never be paid and the kids are back because they can’t afford to buy a house or even rent one. You need a job but they won’t give you one, not because there is any age discrimination, it’s just that you are too old. Hubby/partner talks about getting work, but in truth, he’s getting to like this retired lark because he knows you will continue to run the house and his home life, just as you always did, only now he can enjoy your good works 24/7.
Growing old in the 21st century is stranger than it has ever been. It’s a mass of contradictions, in the media and in society at large. The grey pound is no more, young people find you a bloody nuisance, you are likely to be murdered by the nursing home owner if you get ga-ga and you may have to sell your house to pay for care. Your hard earned pension is shrinking like your best cashmere sweater did when hubby decided to be helpful and wash it in biological powder… And that’s just for starters. So what’s the solution to handling this strange metamorphosis that happens to us all one day? No idea. Answers on an Age Concern post card, please.