Ageing is a part of life. As a nurse, I’ve cared for the ageing and dying; I’m now assisting my 90+ year-old mother in her final years; and since my recent retirement from a 40-year health care career, I’m learning how to manage my own ageing. But what do we mean by ageing?

It is the process of getting older, in which we will face physical, psychological and social changes. Ageing starts almost from the moment we are born, but at this stage, it’s a cause for celebration. We watch and marvel at how babies develop and transform in what seems like a blink of an eye.

But at some point, our attitude toward ageing changes and for many, it becomes a cause for concern. That’s understandable; ageing, or more specifically being ‘aged’, is often associated with increasing frailty, loss of independence, disability and dementia. But does it need to be this way?

Naturally, each of us experiences the ageing of our bodies in our own way and in our own time. And there are, of course, many differing and sometimes contradictory views toward ageing. What do I mean by that?

Alternative views toward ageing

There is an increasing number of inspiring images of older women featured in the media, and influential women in their 40s and 50s often speak positively about their awareness of the onset of physical changes as they age. As 52-year-old TV presenter Davina McCall said:

“We may have a few more wrinkles now, but with that comes life experience”

At the same time there are younger women, some in their teenage years, seeking cosmetic procedures to delay what they perceive as the negative physical effects of time passing.

Recently I saw a newspaper article promoting a new book about an anti-ageing programme designed to help you ‘look and feel younger’ and I wondered what that might mean. Have we stopped to think about what might be more important, to look younger or to feel younger?

I should say that, as a former nurse, I am an advocate for anyone, at any age, taking positive steps to optimise their health, and as an older person I want to look and feel my best. But does that mean I want to look and feel younger? After all, for many people, youth and middle age may not have been that great, for whatever reason. There are good things about not being the same person you were in your younger days: all those mistakes and poor decisions, the fashion embarrassments, and the highly questionable hairstyles!

But, why should we be anti-ageing? Isn’t that ageist, and at the very least, doesn’t that sound unnecessarily negative?

The case for being anti-’anti-ageing’

A child born today has a higher chance of living to over 105 years than in any previous generation; that means many more old people in future. So shouldn’t we be redefining and reviewing our attitudes towards old age?

Ask yourself, is being told you look younger than your age a compliment? If so, why? And how young should any older person aspire to look and feel? If I’m 60, do I want to look 50 or 45? If I’m 80 do I want to look 70? Why? What would that ‘achievement’ mean?

Not so long ago, young people would attempt to look older because, in many cases, it was older people who held positions of power. That isn’t true anymore, just look around at the many younger business leaders in the tech industry, for example.

Now it is older people who have to compete with and emulate the young. Recently I came across the term ‘juvenescence’, which is the state of being youthful or ‘growing young’. That concept places undue pressure on the older person and I suggest that the whole idea of ‘anti-ageing’ is nothing more than a marketing technique that attempts to sell us everlasting youth!

A positive approach to ageing

How we look and how we age biologically is, to a great extent, down to genetics but also a result of some decisions and actions we took in our younger years. For example, how many of us growing up in the 1960s would have taken the precaution to slather ourselves in sunscreen as we roasted on the beach?

In other words, aside from cosmetic cover-ups, dental work and good aesthetic procedures, we may not have much choice about how we look as we age.

As for ‘feeling young’, it’s not at all uncommon for older people to describe how they just don’t feel their age. Or the mild shock they experience when they look in the mirror and see a face that just doesn’t seem to reflect the age they feel.

Age is just a number. Old age creeps up on us all but there is probably a particular age at which you will feel old. For the author Diana Athill, who died in 2019 at the age of 100, old age started at 71. In her book ‘Somewhere Towards The End’ she wrote:

“All through my sixties, I felt I was still within hailing distance of middle age… but my seventy-first did change it. Being ‘over seventy’ is being old: suddenly I was aground on that fact and saw that the time had come to size it up”.

Diana decided to retire at 75.

Not so long ago, we used to characterise our lives as having three distinct stages: education, career and retirement. With lengthening lifespans and changing models of employment there is now the opportunity to view life as having many stages, career changes and breaks.

Young people today are facing a world in which flexibility, adaptability and life-long learning are important attributes. Maybe these are the youthful qualities that we elders need to emulate, so we are better equipped to steer our way through the inevitable changes we will face as we age.

It’s not too late to make plans

I believe we should live in the present to appreciate life as it unfolds, rather than worrying about an uncertain future. However, in my experience both personally and professionally, I have seen the difference a little planning ahead can make to the quality of life as we age. Planning positive changes, big and small, such as keeping fit and eating more healthily, and considering what sort of housing might best suit us in the future, can be key factors to living well for longer.

Long-life was once seen as a curse but we should celebrate ageing as a gift, a gift of time. It is a joyous time to be alive.