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Education and Careers
Ageing: the last lap?
Roger Clough

The questions that this article is leading to are these:

  • How is old age - this period of uncertain length - perceived?
  • As I move towards 70, do I see the rest of my life as a last lap and, if so, is it coasting to the tape or pressing on for the best, possible time?
  • How and where does the picture of old age fit into the picture of a whole life?

I think a lot now about my father's life. We celebrated his 100th birthday last year. What is it like to be his age? How does he see his life? What does he think about? Is he happy? Some of this comes from being a son, 300 miles away who cannot easily communicate with his father as, recently, he has not heard the phone to answer my calls. Yet there is another part that cannot help wondering what the daily routine is like. I have written about the importance of not interpreting the experiences of older people through the eyes of those who are younger. Yet here I am pondering on his life. The experience is compounded because his hearing loss makes communication difficult so that even when we meet I have to write everything down and that sort of staccato conversation makes impossible the discussion I would like to have. I am not sure whether I would ask the questions that are in my head had I the opportunity, but I would have liked to try.

What I want to know is how he thinks about his life: does he look forward to a new day? Does he have things he wants to do? Is his attitude to living different from what it was?

I am immersed in contemplation of my own ageing. I look at a day – and further into the future – and I know that, though the tasks and dreams will have changed from when I was younger, there are things to do that I will enjoy or that will give me satisfaction. My problem — and it is my problem rather than my father's — is that I am not sure what it is that he would enjoy or from which he would get satisfaction.

Yet as I tease at what his life is like I find that what I am doing is to put myself as I am today in his shoes. Not surprisingly I don't want his life; not surprisingly, from my perspective, I don't know what it is that he looks forward to. I suspect that this phrase ‘looks forward to’ contains some of my uncertainties: at one level it means ‘something in the future that we want to do’; yet, literally, it has this element of looking to the future. Does he look to the future and, if so, in what way? Thinking about how he perceives his life resonates with my preoccupation with the way that I look at mine, as I ask myself the same questions as I want to put to him. As I think about me and him I ask myself the wider question, ‘What do we know about the way that people look at their lives in old age?’ 

I reflect on my move into the new territory of old age. It is a stage on a long walk. At any single moment how we feel and what we do on the walk relates to what has happened: the weather, the state of the footpath, whether we have lost our way, whether our knees are causing problems. One of my key questions in reflecting on ageing is how we envisage ‘a life’ and, within that life, old age. Is the metaphor of a walk, and moving into old age as a stage on the walk, appropriate imagery?  There are numerous sorts of walks and many different ways of tackling the walks, but there are common features to most walks that allow validity to the notion of old age as a stage on a walk. There is a picture of the whole with a start and an end; there are markers on the route, many of which have been passed; there is awareness that most of the walk has been completed but, on a new walk, that the route ahead is unfamiliar - an uncertainty even as to how far to the end and of what are the problems that may be encountered.

Having tried to capture my own musings on life stage with the analogy of life as a walk, I have been intrigued to find others writing about life as a mountain that is climbed. In old age people look back over their climb much as Whittier wrote in a poem: 'Like mountain ranges overpast, In purple distance fair'. Each of us will differ in how we see the climb, the parts that were hard, the satisfactions of keeping going when the terrain was difficult and we were tired, the regrets that we did not go higher and so on. When we look back we become aware of things that we did not see at the time, and may notice the tracks of others, at times touching our own. The mountain imagery is used to capture an aspect of ageing that is about seeing your life from a different perspective.

In David Copperfield Dickens refers to the ‘road of life’. The idea of life as a journey is perhaps the dominant framework that I have for looking at life. And it is walking rather than other means of travel that best captures the way that I view the journey. How far this is consequent on my own pleasure in walking and how far on the intrinsic nature of the activity I cannot tell. However, immediately some provisos come into play. The first is that using the word ‘framework’ suggests that there is, or has been, an organised and coherent way in which I have contemplated the activity of living. That is far from the case. So perhaps it is more accurate when I reflect on living to write that seeing ‘life as a journey’ is a dominant metaphor rather than a framework.

I know about the different ways people describe the focus of living, for example as achieving, struggling, being social or involved in family life. And I know of the various ways people have looked at task in later life: ego integrity versus despair or preparation for death. Another important strand has been the life course perspective, linking the lives of individuals to their history and environment.

There is writing also on the purpose of living, for example to live well and die well in preparation for a future life. Important and valuable as are any such approaches my overarching focus is different. I do not know how much consideration there has been of the way in which living, or more precisely a life, is conceived. What I am after is more about the picture or the metaphor that describes a life. My mother, I think, saw life as a journey that would not be easy. She used to quote Christina Rosetti’s poem:

Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

I am absorbed by the questions that surround how I see my life. Where am I on the walk or mountain climb? Is old age to be seen as a last lap? There are lots of unknowns, even about what I want to do, for example as to whether to go on working if I get the opportunity. But the persistent question to which I return is different. It is not what do I want to do, nor what is it that I see as the tasks or purpose of this stage of my life. Similarly it is not about the conditions that will allow me to live well, however I define that.

The question is this: How do I think about, how do I picture ‘a life’?

And, a subsidiary but crucial further question: Within that picture of a life, what is the picture of old age?

I would like to hear personal responses or to get references to theory or writing that examines this topic.

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