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Grappling with an age-old dilemma

I recently watched a programme on Gene Clark, the Byrd who flew the nest.

Clark was as damnably good looking as he had always been. Age had not wearied him, due largely to his early death. However, the eroded features of many of his extant contemporaries were wearied to the point of exhaustion.

As those contemporaries are my generation, I reflected uncomfortably on how I am dealing with getting old, particularly as three score and ten, once a route march away, is now a mere stumble.

For centuries ageing and death have obsessed philosophers and writers. Cicero wrote of the "misery of ageing". La Rochfoucauld in the 16th century captured the essence of the dilemma of ageing when suggesting: "Few persons know how to be old." Knowing how to be old is a personal thing. Do we accept the inevitable or engage in futile rearguard actions we cannot win?

Reactions to ageing have changed profoundly. Recently I revisited my late mother's photographs, many from the early 1920s. The faces staring back stoically were not those of people with the inclination or resources to hold back time and tide. This was the generation exhausted by war and walking the tightrope of economic depression without a safety net.

Unsurprisingly, without exception, the adults look 10 to 20 years older than they must have been at the time. The children were uniformly mini-adults, the girls in cut-down forms of the dress worn by their mothers and grandmothers. Boys sported waistcoats and the ubiquitous flat cap. This was the generation that was seen and not heard, apprenticed to the grind of adulthood.

The drastic economic and sociological changes of the intervening century have increased our discretionary time and resources, allowing greater reflection on "knowing how to be old". This introspection has coincided with the growing hegemony of youthfulness and youth culture. That in itself is no bad thing. It is important to be young, irrespective of years.

What are the best things about being young? Arguably, curiosity, learning, enthusiasm, humour, sociability, optimism, energy and a sense of fairness, none of which is necessarily diminished by passing years. These are the characteristics of inner youth, the key to ageing intellectually, spiritually and morally.

At the heart of the ageing dilemma lies the ultimately futile pursuit of outer youth. A century ago, youth fashion would have been a concept too far. Today, roles have been reversed to such an extent that youthful fashion hugely influences adult dress. I have yet to succumb to the baseball cap, worn back to front or otherwise, but a hoodie slouches threateningly in my wardrobe.

However, the quest for outer youthfulness extends beyond ill-judged fashion statements. Women are particularly pressurised into medical and surgical treatments to maintain the illusion of youth in an increasingly superficial and image-driven world. Females in television rightly resent the correlation between fading looks and fading careers.

The inflationary growth of outer youthfulness has led to a corresponding devaluation of the qualities of inner youthfulness that many retain well into their sixties and seventies. I am increasingly tired of talk of pensions and care crises. In 1963, President Kennedy recognised the potential of increased life span and numbers of older people to present America "with increased opportunities to draw upon their skill and sagacity".

Scottish and UK governments similarly need to see the glass as half full. They need to consider how those still imbued with inner youthfulness can actively contribute to the economic and social welfare of the country. Increasing the age at which the state pension is paid is not the answer. Ultimately it will lead to despondency and resentment, particularly amongst those with few options and trapped on the treadmill into old age.

Instead, a holistic and flexible approach to work and retirement for those between the ages of 60 and 70 is much more likely to bear fruit. Strategies to encourage employers to offer part-time and flexible working for that age group are worth considering. Positivity in relation to older people is the answer. As Maurice Chevalier put it: "Old age isn't so bad when you consider the alternative."

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Fashion

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