The Obsolescence of Senescence

What a drag it is getting old. — Mick Jagger

Attitudes about the aging process vary based on cultural values and demographics. In Greece, for example, it’s an honor to be considered elderly and respect for age is understood rather than hoped for. Likewise, Native American and Chinese cultures revere the elderly and associate advanced age with cultivated wisdom. However, the United States seems to engender mixed feelings regarding the passage of time while its media-driven marketplace seems unable to relinquish an obsession with reversing age.

From a global analysis, the population of senior citizens is projected to increase from 530.5 million in 2010 to 1.5 billion by 2050.¹ Although the United States has a slower aging rate than most countries, the inevitably of having to manage a population that will shift the median age by a significant measure is as certain as the effects of ultraviolet rays on unprotected skin. We better get used to the idea that the fountain of youth is likely to be connected to a much older water pump. So why is aging so often considered undesirable among purveyors of American popular culture?

Losing a sense of vitality or being considered to have outlived one’s usefulness are predominant concerns when the initial pangs of a mid-life crisis eventually subside to unveil the unavoidable realism of advancing years. In addition, many people fear their sexual identity will be irrecoverably compromised with age and they will no longer be considered alluring when their virility or fertility declines. Even worse, the elderly are sometimes infantilized by being portrayed as “sweet but helpless.” As a result, people of all ages spend unquantifiable amounts of time and money on products and services attempting to preserve or reverse the biological calendar. Being older might be okay, but being too old implies inadequacy or irrelevancy and may lead to compulsive attempts to reclaim a semblance of our former selves.

Humans, for the most part, want to be taken seriously while demonstrating to the world that they matter. Criticism based on ageism denigrates the value of our ideas and pursuits as we get older. However, some people always see themselves (or think of themselves) as young, regardless of chronology. In fact, thinking of yourself as “forever 21” is probably one reason why mind/body dualism still remains so pervasive (the brain evolved protective mechanisms to psychologically detach from excessively contemplating its own demise—unless you’re a true existentialist). Unfortunately, I never suffered from this mindset and ironically adopted the reverse attitude of seeing myself as “too old” even when I was obviously too young.

Adhering to conventional age norms never seems to help anything either—especially when it comes to actually being elderly. For example, if you’ve spent most of your life in a state of comparison with others, you’ll eventually imagine or realize everything you missed out on when maudlin contemplation is given carte blanche. This reflective quagmire is what the psychologist Erik Erikson referred to as the psychosocial stage of despair. Likewise, the echo chamber of forlornness only needs a few regrets and a wall of remorse to create a symphony of crestfallen reverberation. Yearning for an ideal self that was never truly manifested, but remains frozen in the mind’s memory of some exuberant past, is a sure recipe for tribulation.

Many religious traditions believe in the restoration of youth during an afterlife. Most everyone has observed a tawdry pamphlet depicting an elderly couple as their disembodied souls float into a refulgent paradise. Of course, the couple’s disembodied souls (also curiously in the form of bodies) just so happen to resemble Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in their prime. Nothing more is needed at this point to convince us where the preferred epoch of human flourishing resides.

Time, in a Newtonian sense, is how we measure the dispensation of energy, and humans inevitably move toward a state of higher entropy as they age. From an evolutionary perspective, errors in cell division increase the risk of succumbing to various diseases, and cell division accompanied by the death of cells is a lifelong process. Simply put, the body represents a vehicle to support our reproductive cells long enough to propagate as we pass the “genetic torch” to future generations. If a human lifespan could be captured via time-lapse cinematography, we would see how existence could be compared to the life cycle of an annual plant (from germination to decay). Aging is a destination that makes the process of growing up possible.

The English actor Albert Finney once said there was no impurity greater than age while he was relaxing on a beach in the film Death in Venice. Although I’m speculating on his intended meaning, I believe he was referring to life’s accumulation of traumatic experiences combined with the “unsightly” changes in form as bodies move from youthful pulchritude to full maturity.

Stereotypes of the elderly may have an ingredient of legitimacy, but the real possibilities of self-actualization become accessible only when the impetuousness of inexperience is replaced with the sagacity of time. If we as a culture could replace phrases like “over the hill” with words like “venerable,” while acknowledging that form is ephemeral, maybe our perspectives on aging would also reach full maturity.

1. (according to Pew Research Center data, 2014)