Inside Story

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3040 words

Acting your age

3 October 2011

How do we want to be seen as we get older, asks Richard Johnstone


Will Choi/Flickr

Will Choi/Flickr

Counterclockwise: A Proven Way to Think Yourself Younger and Healthier
By Ellen Langer | Hachette Livre | $24.99
Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America
By Margaret Morganroth Gullette | University of Chicago Press | $34.95
You’re Looking Very Well: The Surprising Nature of Old Age
By Lewis Wolpert | Faber | $32.99
The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study
By Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin | Scribe | $32.95

There is a scene in Todd Phillips’s buddy film The Hangover (2009) that reminds us, even as we celebrate the contemporary phenomenon of extended youth, that nothing lasts forever and that a day of chronological reckoning will come. Three latter-day musketeers, having misplaced the fourth, are quizzing a hospital resident in an effort to fill in the drug-induced blanks of the previous night and find their lost friend. As he responds to their questions, the doctor continues in a routine and detached way to examine an elderly patient. The old man, dressed only and unflatteringly in his underpants, is both in the scene and out of it. The chatter goes on around him, but he doesn’t speak, other than to thank the doctor politely at the end of the examination. He is, we infer, suffering a form of disorientation and disconnection that is beyond restoration.

It is a funny scene, not least because the joke is on the young(ish) men as much as on the old man. As he sits there in biddable silence, he embodies a state of mind – of being acted upon rather than acting, of forgetting what happened yesterday – that is so central to our perception of what it means to be really old that, like the hyperactive heroes, we can hardly bear to look for fear of having to confront what may lie ahead. It is one of the most unsettling of twenty-first-century dilemmas: forty may be the new thirty, and sixty the new fifty, but surely the day will come when we are forced to relinquish our youth – when no more extensions will be granted – and accept, with as good a grace as we can muster, that old is old?

But then again, maybe not. If we take as our guide another film, one that focuses directly on the aged rather than glimpsing them via the gaze of the young, things can look rather different and rather more encouraging. Stephen Walker’s documentary Young@Heart, made for television in 2006 and subsequently released in a theatrical version in 2008, follows a choir of the elderly – current members are aged from seventy-three to eighty-nine – through the process of preparing for a major concert. Within the relatively low-key world of documentary films, it has done very well (so well, in fact, that it is scheduled for a “narrative remake” by Working Title). It is frequently re-screened, and has won numerous audience awards at film and music festivals around the world. The sight (and sounds) of older people putting in the hard work and long hours of rehearsal to perfect their performance is genuinely uplifting, testament to the revitalising power of music and of a shared commitment to a common end.

But a good part of the popularity and impact of the film can also be attributed to the contrast between the age of the performers and the age of the songs they sing: pop and rock classics decades younger than the people singing them. It is a contrast that produces, for instance, a particularly resonant rendition of the Ramones’ 1978 hit, “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Looking ahead, though, it can be only a matter of time – in fact the process may already have started – before the newer recruits to the Young@Heart chorus will be more nearly contemporaneous with their concert repertoire. The songs of the 1960s, 70s and eventually 80s will, in a very real sense, be their own. What difference will this convergence make, to them and to their audience?

This question – what happens when we re-enact and reinhabit our own past – is one that Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard, has been researching for much of her career. In Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, Langer recalls an experiment she first conducted with her graduate students more than thirty years ago. For a week, a group of elderly men were sequestered in a location that had been got up to mimic the world of two decades before: its furniture, its food, its music, films and newspapers.

By being obliged to live in the past, and to speak of it in the present tense, the men quickly reacquired much of the sociability, confidence, and mental and physical agility of their younger, prime-of-life selves. They were being “cued” to be vital and energetic and they had, temporarily at least, broken the cycle of decline. (A second group of men participated in the same experiment, with one crucial difference: in their interactions with one another, they spoke of the past as the past. This group also improved, but not as much.)

Langer’s work forms the basis of a recently aired BBC series called The Young Ones, in which six octogenarians are brought together in a house that has been turned into a 1970s time capsule. There they are left alone, apart from the cameras, to get on with it, without the benefit of any outside help. We see improvements, including physiological improvements, just like those in the original experiment, some of them manifesting themselves in only a matter of a few days. The participants, stimulated by the right cues, get younger.

There seems little doubt that the experiment works: the executive producer of The Young Ones, Tom McDonald, records in a BBC blog posting how he looked on in amazement as “the atmosphere in the house changed from being a slightly sad retreat for some very nice elderly celebrities into being a dynamic, living, breathing space where collectively everyone was living as their younger selves.” It is not so clear quite how this happens, or what exactly the “cues” are and how they produce the effects that they do. Neither Langer in her book nor the television program really pins this down.

Being immersed in a time in which they were confident and in charge seems to prime the participants to be confident and in charge once again. But there are other things going on too: companionship, shared laughter, and a stimulating change of scene; the sense of renewed connection with the world events that shaped their lives rather than of being overwhelmed by the one-damn-thing-after-another of the twenty-four-hour news cycle; the enforced mutual- and self-reliance in the face of the sudden absence of helpers and carers; the feeling of being involved in something significant and of great scientific interest. All these and more could potentially be playing a part.

Langer is not, in any case, saying that in order to feel younger, old people should live in the past. Her point, both more subtle and more difficult to act on, is that as we age further and further into the last third or so of what is now a normal lifespan of seventy or more years, we increasingly follow a set of cues that are recognised by all – young and old alike – as signalling not vitality and active participation in the world, but decline and the inevitable loss of capacity. If, for instance, young people are culturally programmed to speak more slowly and to articulate more carefully to old people, then the old will continue to slow down, perpetuating a reflexive cycle of cues. Langer has no patience with this learned behaviour. For her, our life stories are not – or rather, they need not be – conventional narratives, made up of a beginning, a middle, and a slow, sad and disappointing end. Decline is not pre-ordained.

What happens, she asks by way of example, if we reverse the standard order of the typical eye chart, in which the letters start large and gradually get smaller, and instead have the lines of letters progress from small at the top to large at the bottom? Rather than reaching a point we have already anticipated, where we know we won’t be able to read the letters, we move instead from the smaller letters to the larger ones, towards capacity and achievement. But more than that, we find that by doing it this way we can actually read more of the letters. Quoting research conducted by Harvard colleagues and published in 2009, Langer records how participants in just such an experiment, faced with the reversed chart, “were able to read lines they couldn’t see before on a standard eye chart.” Tantalisingly, she doesn’t follow up on her next remark: when asked to assess their own performance, the subjects in the experiment “thought they did better on the normal chart.”

As this experiment shows, the effect of reversing convention is that “people can see what they couldn’t see before.” If we cultivate and maintain what Langer calls mindfulness, if we remain alert to the possibilities of novelty and reinterpretation, if we force ourselves to do things differently, we will impose ourselves on the world rather than allow ourselves to be imposed upon. “Rather than try to learn from experience,” she says, in a formulation that may in the end say a little less than it seems to, “we might be better off to experience learning.”

In Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, Margaret Morganroth Gullette is even more impatient than Langer at the notion of ageing as an inevitable decline, with the letters just getting inexorably smaller. Ageism, she says, is insidious and “menacing,” a conspiracy to sap confidence and deny competence. Gullette argues for a countervailing “progress narrative,” a kind of “vast, anti-ageist conversation that will move our hearts [and] tune up the policy engines.” But the difficulty with proposing a conversation as a solution is that it isn’t really a solution at all; rather, it is an acknowledgement of the insurmountable nature of the problem. The narrative of ageing as decline is so powerful that it will take more than a conversation, however robust, to turn it in a different direction.

Gullette is surely right, though, to say that for many people ageing “is the new fate worse than death.” She quotes survey data to suggest that “Americans over the age of fifty-five fear Alzheimer’s more than any other disease, even cancer.” What she calls “the terror of forgetting” is, in effect, the fear of losing control over our own lives. In this sense at least, the fear of forgetting is all of a piece with its apparent opposite, namely the very contemporary worry, generated by the rise of the new technologies, that nothing will ever be truly forgotten. In both cases, what we are really frightened of is losing control of how we present ourselves to the world; of, so to speak, losing our minds.

One reason for the cultural dominance of the “decline narrative,” for the fact that old age is, if not the new “fate worse than death,” then at least an equally unattractive prospect, is that many more people are living long enough to be confronted by both. In his engaging overview of what it means to be old, You’re Looking Very Well: The Surprising Nature of Getting Old, the developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert points out that “in the industrialised world in the twentieth century there was an unexpected and unprecedented growth in the older population – some thirty years were added to life, an increase greater than in the previous 5000 years.” Of course, there have always been old people. The difference now is that there are many, many more, with these numbers, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the total population, set to increase even further, not just in the developed world but in many developing countries as well.

In addition to his professional qualifications, Wolpert speaks with the authority of an octogenarian. His own experience occasionally creeps into You’re Looking Well, further illuminating the summaries he provides of the ever-increasing mass of research into ageing. It is hard, for instance, not to read some personal frustrations behind his account of the phenomenon of “benevolent prejudice,” whereby “the warmth felt towards older people means there is often public acceptance that they are deserving of preferential treatment – for example, concessionary travel.” This is all very well, but what, Wolpert asks, if benevolent prejudice also leads, rather in the manner of Langer’s cultural cues, to “assumptions that it is ‘natural’ for older people to have lower expectations, reduced choice and control, and less account taken of their views”?

In the face of prejudice, benevolent or otherwise, Langer, Gullette and Wolpert, like many other contemporary commentators on the phenomenon of ageing, tend to advocate the path of most resistance, of very definitely not going quietly – even as they acknowledge that this can work for only so long. Nature will eventually take a hand. In trying to come to terms with this reality, Wolpert tells a story against himself. “I once proposed,” he says, that “we all should have a gene which ensured painless death when we were eighty.” Having reached the age of eighty-one, he has “now increased that age to eighty-five.”

If, like Wolpert and the increasing numbers of people who are living longer, your objective is to stave off both a “declining” old age and its close companion, death, for as long as possible, the most logical strategy is to remain healthy and active and at the same time to push the boundaries of the normal lifespan. To this end, The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study, by Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, offers guidance, based on survey data going back as early as the 1920s. By analysing this evidence, certain trends can be identified. A long, healthy life seems positively correlated, for example, with career success, with an optimistic (but not necessarily sunny) temperament, and with conscientiousness and organisational skills. (Langer, while acknowledging the link between an optimistic temperament and the likelihood of a long life and continuing good health, speculates that “perhaps excessively scheduled lives portend premature death.”) Marriage, on the other hand, whether unsatisfactory or happy, doesn’t seem to make much of a difference to longevity – except perhaps for men, who could, the authors speculate in one of their lighter moments, be benefitting from having someone always on hand to call an ambulance.

Despite the claim on the cover that “this book… will optimise your chances,” the reality is that the insights it provides are essentially retrospective. It is true that at one point we are told that our life “patterns can be altered and improved,” and the authors even stray into slightly creepy territory with their comment that “being selective about whom you socialise with” and building up “a network of healthy friends” might nudge the odds in your favour. But by and large, while some of the key factors contributing to longevity are convincingly identified, we don’t really learn very much about how to plan in advance for a long and healthy life. Conscientiousness may be linked to longevity, but what if we aren’t really conscientious at all but just pretending to be? Will that work?

With all the evidence so far suggesting that the best-laid plans for a long life and a healthy and vigorous old age may well go awry, it is little wonder that the best option for many people seems to be not to get old – and even, ideally, not to die – at all, but to remain forever young. (Once, not so long ago, this phrase served as a consolatory metaphor for the early death of a loved one, but it is now more likely to signal a determination to stay very much alive and perpetually in the second, third or fourth flush of youth.) To put it another way: is it really possible, as Ellen Langer’s research seems to suggest, to recover and preserve enough of our past selves and our past confidence to ensure that we remain, even into old age, “forever young” and in control?

The answer, probably, is “up to a point.” Once upon a time, the injunction to “act your age” meant to act your chronological age (or even slightly older, as in “grow up”) – to stop being immature and to go with the flow of time. Now it could just as easily mean that we should act the age we think we are or would prefer to be; after all, to further mine the database of age-related clichés, you’re as young as you feel. There is no longer any social compulsion, as Wolpert notes, to wear age-related clothing, or to adopt age-related behaviour. The experiments of Langer and the experience of the Young@Heart chorus appear to say that we can, to some extent at least, reject the conventional trappings of old age and determine for ourselves just how old we want to be. We can follow our own cues.

The problem is that acting, and that includes acting your age, requires an audience to see you, and as countless “senior citizens” have observed to their chagrin, with old age comes a form of invisibility. For many people, to be old means to be no longer centrestage, or even in the chorus. As for the old man in The Hangover, it means sitting in the corner being half-attended to while the young have all the fun. It may be that what truly revitalises the members of the Young@Heart choir, or the participants in Langer’s social experiments, making them feel younger and more alive, is having an audience to play to. Which leaves us with another question: how do we act our way out of old age if no one is watching? •

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