Ageism and the secret to living a long life.

Jun 11, 2021
Archibald winner

The Archibald is 100 and Peter Wegner has won the 2021 prize for his portrait of 100-year-old artist Guy Warren who commented, “One hundred years is a hell of a lot of experience. I’ve survived the Great Depression, a war, I’ve survived serious medical difficulties and I’ve survived COVID – touch wood. The secret to living a long life is you just have to keep living.”

The winning artist, Peter Wegner has painted 90 centenarians so far and is moving on to paint 110-year-olds. He thinks Warren will make it as a subject.

At 70, I wrote In Praise of Ageing, a book where 90-year-olds told their life stories. I wondered what it was that enabled some individuals to live well past average life expectancy while others sit in a corner just waiting for life to end. Was it more than good luck and strong genes?

Between the Spanish flu of 1918 and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 global life expectancy doubled.  That is some achievement. Medical science has played its part but there is no question that attitude influences longevity, not only how long you live, but the extent to which you enjoy your long life. “Life must be lived”, as Guy Warren asserts. His view is straightforward.

“I still feel like I did when I was 55 or even 35 – there’s no difference. People talk about embracing the dignity of old age. F–k the dignity of old age! I don’t want to know anything about it. If anyone thinks you should go into an old people’s home while you’re capable of doing what you’ve always been doing, you should tell them to go get nicked. Retirement is an absurdity! I’ve never understood the idea. People see it as the point where they can stop working and do what they’ve always wanted to do – but then they find it’s far too late! Give me another 10 years and I might start thinking about retirement.”

But others lose that fighting spirit required, as support and encouragement in their transformed longer years disappears. There is no social policy planning for 100-year lifespans.  Politically and socially, we have struggled to come to grips with this dramatic demographic change.

There have always been old people, the difference now is that more people are living much longer. Those like Guy Warren, who age successfully share several characteristics. They are not just the privileged. They are not sickly people, although most do have physical issues which they manage. What stands out is that over the years they have reinvented themselves; they have restructured their lives as circumstances change, and they show resilience in dealing with hardship. They have been adventurers and risk-takers. While a certain amount of good luck is involved in growing old without accident, disease, and social catastrophe, some aspects of successful ageing are negotiable.

Perseverance and self-motivation are traits that are significantly associated with longevity. Successful long lifers enjoy the company of others of all ages. They are community-minded and remain interested in politics and current affairs. They manage their routines and their needs independently, and although lonely from time to time, they take action and are not isolated. They are not consumed with regrets and have learned to live day by day, remaining interested and interesting.  Throughout their lives, they had felt loved and worthwhile. They are inspirational people, role models for life in the prime of old age.

However, a major obstacle to a successful old age for many of us is discrimination or ageism. It is insidious and invidious in its effect and starts eating away at us early in our life span. For women, it comes early in all kinds of forms, but men don’t miss out.  In 1976 when my husband Don was carried into Hospital Emergency, having smashed his foot in an accident, he heard a nurse say, ‘We’ve got an old one out there’. Don was 40. The QALY index (Quality adjusted life years) used by health professionals to measure the impacts on health of medical treatments, is applied. It is something we have heard more about during COVID when there have been discussions about who should get the ventilator or the vaccine.

So, when is someone old? Is 50 the magic number? Is 70 now the new 60? Are we old when we qualify for a Senior’s card? When we retire from the workforce? When we qualify for the pension? When we get sick? When we have grandchildren? When we have grey hair? When we access superannuation? These points are arbitrary, but all describe boundaries from which, once we are described as ‘old’ we are assigned to a category, where we enter a downward path from which there is no return.

We are ‘let go’ at work, our job applications are unread, technically we are left behind as every facility and service is moved online, our life experience is devalued and sometimes those who have been significant contributors to the community are shut out from any further active contribution, suffering the loss of esteem and relevance, despair, and grief.  We enter a stage where we can be patronised, ignored, shouted at, called love, dear and darling, or ultimately, collectively in aged care ‘the lovies’, by nurses who are well-intentioned but don’t bother to remember our names. We are no longer individuals and are expected to dwell on the margins of society.

Don’t have a stroke or an accident if you haven’t got an advocate to argue for your placement in a rehabilitation centre and expect no help from the NDIS if you are over 65. Ageism is endemic to our long-lived experience. It has led to the scandalous, disturbing, and unacceptable conditions exposed by the Royal Commission into Aged care Quality and Safety (March 2021).

Guy Warren is an outlier, but there are more and more of us coming along. The way society responds will determine whether those increased years, science, and education have given us mean the diseases and pains of ageing will be squeezed in to an increasingly short period at the end of a long life, or whether morbidity is being extended with more people spending more time with pain, disease, dementia, and neglect. Our attitude to life makes a profound difference but attitudes are not self-generated in a vacuum; they come from a society that recognizes and respects multi-generational difference and intergenerational exchange at every stage of a long life.

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