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Harry Patch - Time To Honour Old Age
Mal Fletcher

Posted: 06 August 2009

The laying to rest today of Harry Patch, Britain's oldest man and the last surviving member of its World War I armed services, ought to remind us again about the importance of honouring the elderly - and, perhaps, respecting old age itself.

Robert Browning said that the last of life is the best of life. Many people would disagree. When most of us look at the loneliness and the physical if not psychological diminishment that comes with old age, we'd give almost anything to avoid it.

Many of us think like John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, who prayed: 'Lord, don't let me live to be useless.'

Life expectancies have grown dramatically in much of the developed world over the past fifty or so years, yet we still seem largely unable or unwilling to confront the challenge of growing old.

In fact, while some cultures honour the aged, postmodern Western culture seems to have taken on a pre-disposition against them, an attitude that is fed by consumerist marketing and a culture of celebrity that worships youthfulness.

Many older people now claim that this general inclination has morphed into an active discrimination, or ageism.

Strictly speaking, ageism can be directed at the very young as much as the very old. Most often, though, it's a prejudice directed almost entirely at the elderly. It is based on a mainly unspoken belief that they offer little of worth to society, either economically or socially.

Most of us might not consider ourselves ageist, but we may be more prejudiced than we care to admit. In one recent study of human memory, psychologists found that people recalled more negative traits about someone who was labelled 'old' and more positive traits about a someone who was labelled 'young'.

In line with this thinking, we've developed an entire anti-ageing industry, with a plethora of techniques and technologies that promise to beat back the ravages of time.

I've just returned from a brief visit to California, the Mecca for cosmetic-surgery-on-demand. In the home of the facelift, the most common procedures are nose reshaping, liposuction, breast augmentation and eyelid surgery and a third of all patients have more than one procedure at a time.

For those who prefer not to go 'under the knife', there is the Botox injection and the chemical peel.

The health industry offers anti-ageing systems based on bottled vitamins, anti-oxidants, hormones and other health supplements. Meanwhile, ancient anti-ageing techniques, which mix religious teaching with health regimes, have been repackaged for today's market.

Of course, many believe that the answer to ageing, if there is one, will only emerge through the study of genetics -- especially adult stem cell research - or perhaps cryonics. The latter seeks to find a way of freezing human bodies, at the point where medicine can no longer sustain them, so that they might be resuscitated later when science has a few more answers.

At the moment, the process isn't reversible and many scientists doubt that cryonics will ever work. (And many question whether the 'mind' or the 'soul' could be revived along with the physical brain.) But some remain hopeful that things like nanomedicine will one day make it feasible.

Of course, the reason the human psyche pushes hard against the idea of old age is that we're not too keen on what lies beyond it.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book 'Denial of Death', Ernest Becker argued that the fear of death is our most primal driving force and the source of all human heroism. We try to achieve something in this life, he said, so that we will, at some level, beat death and achieve immortality.

The awareness of death, then, is a great motivator. But Becker said it is also our greatest source of frustration. No matter how much we achieve, we live with the quiet and persistent awareness that we will face the ignominy of the grave.

If this is true it is something shared by all human beings whatever their creed or cultural heritage. Yet while death may not be too popular, there are cultures that revere old age and the elderly, whereas we in the West tend to try to put the old out of sight and out of mind.

Part of our problem with old age and the elderly may be the fact that we tend to measure self-worth on the basis of appearance. Or perhaps in our highly self-sufficient culture we fear the loss of control and the diminishment of influence that seem to come with old age.

Whatever the reason we fear it, old age should not be synonymous with loneliness or alienation. Communities the world over are at their strongest when all the generations share and explore life together.

Harry Patch and others like him, who spend their old age passing on the wisdom of experience to younger generations, challenges us to rethink postmodern approaches to ageing.

The elderly have more to offer us than we usually allow.

In this age of increasingly rapid and often random change, we need voices of experience more than ever; people who can us develop perspective, a sense of the long view. We need people who can give us a sense of our own place in history. In an age where family is breaking down on many fronts, young people in particular need to feel connected to a larger story.

One writer has said that the greatest tragedy isn't death; it's when a person dies while he's still alive. Ultimately, we may never be able to stop the ageing process, but we can age well. Good ageing is measured by the way we respond to the challenges of life.

Ageing well is finding the right answers to these questions. Will we allow ourselves to become bitter and withdrawn as we grow older? Will we constantly complain about the weaknesses of the 'young generation'? Will we look back over our shoulders with regret and recrimination?

Or will we adopt an outgoing, altruistic approach that tries to leave giant footprints in the sands of time? Hellen Keller said that, 'Life is most fulfilling when it's lived in the service of others.'

As technology allows more of us to live longer, we must learn to support the interests and needs of the elderly, while calling and equipping them to do as Harry Patch did in his latter years: to invest in a positive future they may never see.

Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2009

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