My eye was drawn to a headline in the local paper, “Elderly man knocked down by car”. Even by Aberdeen standards, it was a pretty slow news day, but what grabbed my attention was the fact that the “elderly” man was my junior by eight years. Why was it necessary to describe the unfortunate chap as elderly at all? If he’d been 20 years younger would the headline have been, “Middle aged man knocked down by car”? It was written to give the impression of a poor old codger who shouldn’t haven’t been out on his own. The writer knew nothing of the victim, but he/she was unwittingly contributing to the stereotyping of older people. The report did however, make me question when exactly, does the seamless move from middle age to elderly occur?

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According to the Active Grandpa website (no, me neither), men think old age begins at 66 while women, ever optimistic, think it’s 70. Unsurprisingly, as we age, the frontier becomes more distant. As American lawyer, Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “old age is always 15 years older than I am”. Ask your children or grandchildren when people become elderly; they’ll roll their eyes and say 30. In contrast, 65-year-olds defer elderly status, if not their bus passes and state pensions, until 74. Some studies subdivide the definition of elderly into “early”, being 65 to 74 years and “late”, 75 plus. As I totter up to the late elderly marker, the question of what being elderly means, looms larger. It’s not that I’m afraid of getting old or dying. What I do fear, is loss of autonomy and possibly, dignity. Partly that’s due to anxiety about shrinking independence and decision-making capacity. There’s a close correlation between autonomy in later years and mental and physical health. My wife and I have given Power of Attorney to each other and to family members. Probably very sensible, but there is still some unease about ceding control of one’s affairs and future care to others. Quality of care isn’t necessarily the same as quality of life. There’s little pleasure or dignity being put to bed at 6 o’clock.

If we’re lucky, ageing is a slow process. It’s probably wisest to treat it as a process of transition. Like Bob Dylan, we need to reinvent ourselves at notable milestones; 60, 70, 80 whatever. Some things, like work and possibly driving, will have to go at some point, but we need to be proactive and creative in filling those gaps. We also need to sidestep the modern obsession with youthfulness and youth culture that prevents us being comfortable with how we are now, not how we were 30 years ago. The toupee wearer for example, is fooling no one, not even himself. Now that I think about it, I need to get rid of that hoodie and skinny jeans.

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Stereotyping the elderly can lead relatives and carers to wrap us in cotton wool. No matter what our age, self-image and self-concept are important and stem from having control over one’s life. Even in the twilight years, there’s nothing wrong with doing things that involve an element of risk that doesn’t endanger others. Until placed under house arrest last March, I played squash two or three times a week. My GP advised it was risky, but surely better to breathe your last on court than in the care home next door. As author John Mortimore put it, “no pleasure is worth forgoing for another three years in the geriatric ward”.

Baby boomers have become the Geriatric Generation, but most of us are no more inclined to accept stereotyping than we were in the 60s. If we have the capacity, don’t assume we need or want things done for us. Just a hand to help we oldies keep on doing it for ourselves.


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