I am a sufferer of Gerascophobia (minus all actual symptoms which include heart palpitations and nausea). According to Wikipedia, I have an abnormal fear of growing old and yet this fear is far from unusual. A study of 2,000 women conducted by Age UK in 2012 found 50% of women in their 20s were afraid of old age. Whilst, I am slightly younger than 20, I find myself fearing the natural aging process. The paradoxical element of my problem is that I yearn for the freedoms that come with age, learning to drive, moving out, living independently. What drives this fear of aging if it gifts me with so many privileges?
70 years from now, my generation will become the world’s elderly, inevitably falling into that part of life we never thought we would reach. The stereotype of the elderly being unable to work or do the things their youth permitted them and burdening their offspring with their existence seems to badly advertise the latter part of our life. In all honesty, I feed into this poor publicity and transform ageing into my own personal anxiety. I envisage my body slowly degenerating and my world slowly closing in on me as I retire to everyday monotony. But where does this seemingly irrational fear for an adolescent come from and how can one overcome it?
It’s possible that I am so concerned with my looks that my first wrinkle or grey hair will trigger a streamline of botox and dye to combat the natural ageing process. And, to an extent, it’s true. Our media-captivated society plants a huge importance on physical beauty and, in particular youthful beauty so it’s natural that my generation may place looks before intellect. The fact that my body will change without my permission leaves me feeling hopeless and seems to make my morning makeup routine redundant. I symbolise the culmination of media bombardment as I instinctively carry out anti-age beauty rituals unsure of whether I started because I wanted to or because I felt I had to. Whilst I have no plan for future botox appointments, I can imagine the nostalgia I will feel for my younger self a few decades from now.
But is this fear that superficial? Maybe it is the loneliness we so often affiliate with the elderly that could be the root. Two fifths of all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company whilst over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone. We have created a human use-by date, a time when we are useful and worthy of human interaction and a time beyond when we become sitting ducks. I may try to fight it but inevitably the loneliness of day-to-day life for the old will take me as its latest prisoner.
Surely, the way to alter this evidently destructive and bleak way of thinking is to pinpoint the moment I started seeing the elderly in this light. The media’s portrayal of the old as behind-the-times and unable to comprehend modern advances such as the latest technology has left an imprint of uselessness. Similarly, the beauty industry’s booming anti-aging market has made the assumption that age is something to prevent. The solution would be to consciously ignore the media and reject the beauty standards of today, both difficult but not impossible tasks.
Nevertheless how do I control a fear over getting old when it comes to the inevitable deterioration of health. To think that I may be a perfectly functioning person with a great social network and an enriching life and suddenly be hit with a life-altering turn for the worse seems terrifying. Then the doctors appointments will start. The many ailments that will plague me on a day to day basis will be answered by a reel of medications to be taken orally 3 times a day. A year ago, I met a retired consultant anaesthetist who had recently had a stroke which stole his voice. He was unable to speak intelligibly so used an electronic sketch pad to speak. Whilst it was a miracle he survived, I could not help but wonder about this quality of life for such an intelligent person. To have so much experience and intellect but be unable to show this or share your inner thoughts is deplorable.
Worse still, I imagine my most real and hair-raising nightmare to be losing my mind, that gradual robbery of everything that I use to recognise myself – my personality, my intellect, my memories. Dementia, you’re a smooth criminal. Dementia has one deceivingly honourable trait: it does not discriminate. It does not analyse and evaluate before going in for the kill. It simply chooses its next victim by the roll of a dice. That’s what scares me the most. The helplessness of growing old and the inability to prevent reckless killers like dementia.
Despite this seemingly despair account of the elderly, I know that being old can’t be terrible. The senior population have the experience and wisdom that I am yet to acquire. I look forward to all the knowledge I will possess when I am 80 years old. The aged can be described with adjectives such as venerable and distinguished(I’ve never heard of a venerable 16 year old). I imagine the countless stories I’ll have in a memory bank to pull out at the dinner table, for example, how I ended up in Kiev playing the flute on a street corner or how I single-handedly wrestled a crocodile on the Nile in order to rescue an infant caught in the infested waters.
It may not be possible to fully overcome my Gerascophobia but living in the present may be a good way to start. I’m evidently far too existential for my own good and my pessimistic view of the world may be a key influencer. In the words of an optimist, I can change. I can change the livelihoods of the elderly now and build up a new outlook on the later part of our lives.
In true Gandhi style, I can be the change I wish to see in the world.