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Fear of ageing: opinion piece

Perhaps there would be less need for people to sign up to Philip Nitschke’s death machine if growing old were not so widely considered ‘a fate worse than death’. What drives such negative views of ageing? Fear and dread for the future? The belief we can be forever young? Denial of our mortality? The spirit of the age can fill us with despair on the one hand, or false optimism on the other. A pall of fear is cast by those who regard the rapidly increasing ageing population as a threat – a tsunami of older people to swamp us by 2050, gobbling up more than half of the health care budget, prompting us to hold up our hands in desperation in the face of this deluge. Such apocalyptic, pessimistic language may be contrasted to that of the eternal optimists who, in 1999 – the international year of older people – coined the euphemisms ‘chronologically challenged’ and ‘experientially enhanced’ to deny any talk of old age.

In a cultural environment that favours productivity and perfection over disability, in a medical research environment devoted to the abolition of old age, is there a place for creative communities where we may age gracefully?  What is the source of our life and our hope as we move inexorably toward our death; for regardless of our protests and our progress, as one writer reminds us: ‘the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent’!

To age well is not to seek an illusory return to our youth, or (perhaps worse) to seek perpetual middle age (!), but to rejoice with the Psalmist in the ‘numbering of our days’. How may we look more realistically at what lies ahead? We may place our confidence in another type of language. Wisdom from classical and contemporary art and literature, and quintessentially from the Christian faith, prompts us to see the paradoxical nature of ageing – its burden and blessing – leading us to a hope beyond ourselves at this age or that age.

This frame of reference asks not what we should do about the ageing problem but what is the meaning of ageing. This starting point would then look for different resources. What resources are given people who attend retirement seminars? Largely, I suggest, tips for financial planning. Rather, we may ask, what will I need to sustain me as I grow older, to give my life meaning not merely as an old person but as a citizen; not as an isolated individual but as a person in community? Who will nourish me, not only as one who needs to be physically fed, but as one who seeks food for my soul? These questions suggest a response of mutuality, of reciprocal relationships; not salvation through faith in ourselves.

If we see no meaning in ageing beyond decay, dependency and death we will do all in our power to abolish it. If, on the other hand, we regard every older person as unique and irreplaceable, we will welcome each other in our difference and diversity. Our personal future will not be constrained by cheerful optimism, or by frenetic attempts to keep old age and death at bay; we will see in our days being numbered a sure and certain sign of freedom and promise.

Thankfully, the fear of ageing can then be replaced by hope; especially where health professionals, families, older people and others dedicate their lives to ‘meaningful ageing’.

Associate Professor Rosalie Hudson