When was the first time you felt old?

When was the first time you felt, umm… elderly? Well okay – old? It’s not as if it’s something that  happens often because we live in a self-made reality, now and in the past.

But it’s right there if we bother to look: on the car radio Magic FM specialises in music for the ‘oldies’ – that same music which revolutionised the music world when we were in the Swinging Sixties, is now a commercially viable lullaby for early baby boomers.

It’s not as if increasing years don’t give us plenty of warnings: bifocals, hearing aids, capped teeth, aching joints, and an impressive array of preventive procedures and medicines to ward off the same.

But there are things other than medical conditions which make you realise that even if you can’t quite come to believe it, others readily recognise that you are old, Father William. And they can do it in the kindest ways.

At a public meeting some time ago, there was standing room only when I arrived late. So, being young and all, (and having no option), I stood.  This was too much for an Indian who was also one of the organisers. In front of me there was an eruption of insistence and resistance, much woggling of heads as the Indian gesticulated (towards me). Was I the problem? Well yes, as it turned out.

The young supporter he was haranguing, reluctantly raised himself from the only seat in the house –  on one of the concrete steps leading into the hall. The Indian then took me gently by the arm as you might with a frail, elderly personage, saying ‘please sir’ as he gestured towards the makeshift seat he had created. I thanked him profusely, he salaamed and weaved his way back into the ranks of the standing.

I was grateful for this rough cast concrete coronation, sort of. I was also puzzled. The Indian saw me as an elderly gent in need of both respect and care; I saw myself as being fit, independent and, yes, youngish:  Late 60s, a gym regular, walker and  yogi. All to no avail it seemed.

This episode was the first to confirm that I had indeed reached my Best Before, though not yet my Use By. But moments like this also have their upside, even if they begin with the backside. I realised that if this was to be one of the first perks of being older then I had to take it. What’s not to like about my Hopcard – that magic carpet for free public transport – and the discounts so widely available with the Gold card.

But these are paybacks to those who are both elderly – and healthy. For others there are modern day plagues and yes, remedies, but among disabilities and immobility lies another more complex aging issue – loneliness.   A 2014 study by Independent Age in the UK, showed  that severe loneliness ‘blights the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1 million women over 50…. Ebola is  unlikely ever to kill  as many people as the disease of loneliness’.

English philosopher George Monbiot blames the social  collapse of society  that one of the  drivers of loneliness is  the current ‘life denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man is the religion of our time…’ he wrote in his  2016 book How did we get into this mess? The book is a robust rejection of  greed and individualism.

But there  are antidotes at hand and not just for the elderly: harnessing the best of human  nature’s qualities  – altruism  – and helping others less fortunate.   For those who have time the Salvation Army’s corps of volunteer visitors to the elderly is one  outlet but there are  also numerous  organisations which  are crying out for volunteers.  In our commercially  modeled world  altruism is a rare and precious   feelgood gift – one which can make you feel younger than  that number called your age.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.