Negative attitudes towards ageing and death could spoil the full enjoyment of your later years. It’s time to confront the taboos and look for the positives… wrinkles and all!
In our culture, youth – having perfect, wrinkle-free skin, being cool, and fashionable – is celebrated. Absorbing these cultural messages can lead us to feel worried, stressed, or sad about ageing. As soon as we see the first blemish, we may start trying to fix it. We may colour our hair, or do whatever we can to hide the signs for as long as possible. Yet, no matter what we do, deep down we all know that growing older is inevitable.
Negative attitudes towards age are common in Western societies. The World Values Survey, analysed by the World Health Organisation, looked at attitudes towards the elderly in all age groups, and found that the lowest levels of respect were reported in high income countries.
We may have subconscious negative beliefs about ageing that are not only hurtful to others, but can impact our own wellbeing, too. Research published in The Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences found that people with a negative view towards ageing report lower levels of life satisfaction. They are also more likely to be hospitalised or to die young.
What can we learn from cultures that do value the elderly? Ancient civilisations, like the pagans, worshipped a triple goddess. They recognised three different life stages of women – the maiden, the mother and the crone. The crone was the last stage, after menopause. The crone represents wisdom and counsel, valuable skills that are of huge benefit to the young.
According to therapist Dr Linda E Savage, author of Reclaiming Goddess Sexuality, the crone years are a time of “giving back to society the cumulative wisdom of the years. Many women have an urge to speak out, to organise others. It is often crone energy that leads to changes being made in society. As the crone woman moves further into her life path, she feels the urge to teach others and to cultivate her passions. It can be the most productive time in women’s lives.”
Another more positive impression of the elderly is found in Native American cultures. Older generations are respected, and known as the ‘wisdom keepers’. It is typical for elders to receive people’s full attention when they speak. Wrinkles and stretch marks are seen as signs of wisdom, rather than flaws.
As people get older, they may experience a slowing down, a reassessment of values and ways of living. However, this doesn’t mean that they lose their usefulness as human beings. Far from it. With more time to focus on what matters, people can hone their purpose, and spend time doing what brings them joy.
In the book Our Wisdom Years: Growing Older with Joy, Fulfilment, Resilience and No Regrets, psychologist Charles Garfield tells how a hip injury forced him to slow down and reassess his values. After a lifetime of achievement and constant busy-ness, his injury allowed him more time for reflection. Garfield considers the later years of life to be ones in which the elderly can listen to their calling – something they’ve always wanted to do, but hadn’t had the time before.
Later life is far from unproductive, but is a time when the opportunity to slow down and consider life can make choices and actions more meaningful and rewarding. Instead of considering old age to be dominated by body and mind falling apart, Garfield sees it as the time when the ‘fruit’ of our being ripens.
He says: “What happens next, after the flowers are gone, is the point of it all. The fruit within us ripens invisibly then; the sweet essence of ourselves that we’re here to cultivate at this time of life. Our goal now isn’t achievement or success for its own sake. It’s to tend to this fruit, our wisdom, our fascinations, our kindness.”
A positive attitude towards our later years, can allow the self to come into full fruition. However, the body’s deterioration may be a reminder that death is always drawing closer, and part of the problem may be Western attitudes towards it. We tend to think of it as something taboo that we shouldn’t talk about.
Avoiding talking about death can mean that negative feelings prevent us from enjoying the later years to the fullest. There is much inspiration we can take from other cultures’ attitudes towards ageing and dying.
In This Party’s Dead: Grief, Spilled Joy, and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals, author Erica Buist processes her father-in-law’s sudden death by visiting death festivals around the world. Buist found that this way of carving out time on a yearly basis helped people to deal with their feelings around the death of loved ones, and their own mortality. Death was seen less as something to avoid, and more as a natural process.
In the UK we may not have death festivals, but we do have Death Cafés. This global movement was set up to break the taboo around death by inviting people to get together to drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death. “To share a fear is to remove its power,” says Kate Brassington, organiser of a Death Café in Portland, Oregon. Taking some time to talk, to connect, to focus on others, can mean that fear of death doesn’t have to get in the way of your last years of enjoying life. You can find local death cafes on deathcafe.com, or set one up if there isn’t one in your area.
Taking some time to reflect on your own attitudes towards ageing and dying can help you release any subconscious prejudices, and allow you to honour the real process of growing older. You could journal about your attitudes. How do you relate to the elderly around you? What subconscious beliefs may you be holding about your own ageing? How might growing older be framed in a different light? Just writing your thoughts can help you access your inner wisdom, and make a shift in perspective.
You could look around for books, movies, or TV programmes that have a more positive view of growing older. Examples include the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, which follows two women starting over in old age, or the movie Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which all the main characters are older adults. Both these are comedies, and humour can be a wonderful way to laugh away the taboo of ageing and dying.
With a little attention to your own attitudes towards ageing and death, you may soon start to feel more joyful about it. You can enjoy the benefits of slowing down, and having the time to truly grow into yourself. Perhaps one of the biggest lies of our culture is that our younger years are the happiest. I suspect that, actually, we are hiding a big secret – that the later years are the ones where we get to grow into our innate, joyful natures.