Why do we fear old age so much?

A Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam describes this by asking what a 10 year old would say if we asked him what it would be like to be 20. It would be awful to him. There would be no play time. There would be no summer vacation. He would have to get a job! But at twenty he would look back at the age of 10 and say: “There’s no way I’d want to be 10 anymore. I have so much more freedom now. I’m making money. I can do whatever I want.” But what if you asked him what it would be like to be 40? “It would be awful. I’d be stuck in the rut of a job. I’d be stuck with a wife and kids.” And so on. But the end of Dr. Tornstam’s analogy is our concept of old age. For some reason our culture fears old age. In general we fear becoming elderly. Our concept of old age is associated with a lack of contentment with life.

Why is this? Why do we despise grey hair and wrinkles? Why do we fear those “golden years”? Why do we scramble to embrace the concept of youth? Why are we so quick to be associated with that insecurity and inexperience and foolishness of youth? How insecure, inexperienced and foolish of us! What do we think we will lose with old age? Is it the excitement of a new experience, or the opportunity of new tests and challenges? Is it the virility of sexual experiences?

It was a typical clinic day. I was seeing patients with diabetes and hypertension, colds, and a recent broken bone. The next patient on my schedule was Carl Fisk. I had never seen him before. He was scheduled to be in my clinic because his regular doctor was gone that day. The reason he was here was for a medication refill. I looked through his chart and found that he was 82 years old and about 3 years ago his wife of 51 years had died of breast cancer. “Oh no” I thought. “This is going to be a totally depressing visit”. I had thoughts that his visit would be filled with discussions about depression and sadness. With this I took a deep breath and entered the room.

Mr. Fisk sat in the corner of the room reading a magazine. He had shiny grey hair and a bright smile. As I walked in he stood up to shake my hand. He wore circular glasses that shined in the light of the clinic room. He was well dressed with khaki pants and a tucked in, blue plaid shirt. I introduced myself, “so what brings you here today?” I asked, prepared for an onset of tears and a possible discussion of antidepressant medications.

“Well doctor”, he began, with more energy than I had expected. Mr. Fisk had a strange smile on his face. Like a 10 year old who just got into a jar of cookies. “The last doctor I saw gave me a prescription for Viagra, and I wanted to see if I could get a refill.”

Caught off guard I stammered and looked through his chart. He was in the clinic only 2 weeks ago and had a prescription for 10 Viagra pills. Did he use them up already? After regrouping, I continued on. In his chart there were no contraindications for him to take Viagra, and he had no adverse side effects. There was no reason he couldn’t continue taking this medication. As I was writing his script (for twice the supply and refills), he said a peculiar thing. “You know doctor,” he began. “People think that as you get older, you can’t have sex anymore, but I haven’t been this sexually satisfied in years.”

We shook hands as he left and I moved on to my next patient. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how happy he was. My initial notion was that he would be a sad lonely old man. But he was the exact opposite.

Over the next few months, I saw Mr. Fisk a few more times. Each time he was as friendly and happy as the time before. We began to get to know each other better. He had a new girlfriend, and was busy spending time with her and his daily golfing games. At the time, I was doing a Geriatrics Fellowship and it was exciting for me to find an elder so excited about life. We talked about this for a while, and he invited me over to his apartment to see for myself. I decided to take him up on the offer. After working around his busy schedule of golf, dating, and volunteer activities, we agreed to meet on a Saturday afternoon.

Mr. Fisk lived in a retirement community with a combination of houses and apartments, surrounded by wooded trees and the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. His apartment was on the first floor in the center of the community. He answered the door with the same smile he always had, and invited me in. Mr. Fisk was a humble man. His apartment was Spartan in its decoration. As I entered, the kitchen was on the right, and the living room on the left. There were only a few pieces of furniture in the living room. A comfortable old green couch and a soft matching arm chair opposite it. There was no television in the room. There was just an old stereo with a record player. Mr. Fisk invited me to sit down on his couch and he sat in the arm chair. I started by asking him how his girlfriend was. His smile immediately broadened and his eyes beamed. “Oh, you mean my sweetheart!” he suggested, “well, we just got engaged! You have to see a picture of her!” Mr. Fisk jumped to his feet and ran to another room. He returned with a 4×6 framed picture of himself standing next to a lady with his right arm wrapped around her shoulder. She looked about his age. They were both smiling broadly. Her name was Janet. As we continued our conversation, he could not stop talking about his “sweetheart”. It was as if he were a teenager smitten by love. Even when the subjects of our conversation would change he would find something about his new fiancé to bring up in the conversation.

During the afternoon, we talked about other aspects of his life. He was a retired pastor, he played golf almost every day with a group of friends. He volunteered in the community at a Nursing Home. His previous marriage had been wonderful. He had three children who were spread all around the country, but he was still very close to them. I left his apartment that afternoon with a sense that his days were busier, and fuller than mine seemed to be.

Since that day, Mr. Fisk married Janet. His children, came from all over to be at the wedding and he had a honeymoon at a beach in South Carolina.

Carl Fisk is extremely happy with life. He is content, and the opposite of what we think old age has in store for us. We fear the onset of old age as if it is the first nail of our coffin. But with old age we don’t have to lose our ability to enjoy sex, we don’t lose the excitement to fall in love again. When we are older and full of experiences, by stepping back and looking at our life, we only change the paradigm of what happiness is. Maybe that is what we don’t realize when we fear old age.

Arsheeya Mashaw is a geriatrician who blogs at A Doctors Guide to Healthy Aging.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000652119019 Dave Comstock

    Humans have observed for millennia that aging is primarily characterized by a loss of function in society. The reasoning given by the 20 y.o. exemplifies this concept, as he believes that he has more functional freedom and capacity than a 10 y.o. – though fails to recognize the benefits highlighted in your essay. The real tragedy here is the outright discrimination that occurs as we age – employment, finances, friendships – all are impacted by mistaken age-related concepts in societal ‘norms’. Our tendency is to throw individuals away after they’ve passed their peak of physical prowess, and we lose the collective experience and wisdom of those having survived more than 50 years on the planet.

  • Guest

    This is a test.

  • meyati

    I think the quality of life reflects on the quality of the doctors and their out look on life. My daughter was taught that if a patient says that they don’t drink-they have daily wine or beer. I was trying to relate to a new doctor-a pretty good one. I was a navy wife, skinned dived, been on ranches, and taught math to 300 lb gang bangers. But I’m allergic to many meds– I’d say something like Well at least I didn’t loose any fingers while team roping, so my thumb is disjointed and some knuckles are big-it’s not a disease. One day he lectured me for making up stories-He looked at an MRI, bc I had been in the ER. He says, “You have 2 spleens. Do you know how rare that is? blah, blah,” I’m thinking he’s playing a mind game with me-so I just stare at him. I don’t say anything to anybody-because I’m thinking it’s a trick- that I’ll go around and tell everybody that and he can say-SHE TELLS STORIES-I PROVED IT. I went to radiology, got the report-and I have an auxiliary spleen. I guess that’s why I was so good free diving-I talked to my dentist about it-He knew me-he thought it was fun to ride his dirt bike into a small herd of cattle that I’d be rounding up and taking to a pen for a screw worm check -what ever- A few years ago, he asked me why I didn’t rope and drag him.. I told him my horse had only so much energy and we had to get the beef to the holding pen. Now I have aggressive-atypical BCC skin cancer. I had like a zit for almost 30 years-and I tried to get it off-too small-you can’t tell me how to practice med-you’re just vain-the lab won’t accept such a small biopsy-I went to a ton of doctors-military and civilian. My doctor started to say that couldn’t happen-and I said, “And I have an auxiliary spleen.” I wish that I had cut it out myself with my Buck knife. The above elder—what if his doctor dismissed what he said-he wouldn’t have the viagra and a happy lady.

  • LastoftheZucchiniFlowers

    I suspect that “Mr. Fisk” is a testament to what sociologists would call ‘the continuity theory of aging,’ in that he’d likely lived his entire life with the demeanor you observed. Don’t we all age as we have lived? I too have noted that we do not change as we age, but we age as we’ve lived. A grumpy, unpleasant pessimist who swirls around in a negatively charged vortex in their 30s will be the same in their 60s and 70s (IF they live that long!) We see the ‘Mr. Fisks’ of the world coming and going in our daily lives as they smile at us well into their ‘golden years’. It’s our world view that carries of forward each day, year after year into the final years of life youth-worshipping culture notwithstanding.
    Oddly, when dynastic Asian cultures revered their aging elders, those same cultures valued great old age for being a time when, FINALLY, a body could stop its heretofore incessant labor to eat, sleep, read and play with grandchildren in a leisurely manner.

  • John Sheldon

    Those fortunate enough to go on enjoying life at 81, as I am, are naturally sad in the knowledge that not many years can be left. They may speculate about which parts of their minds or bodies will fail first, and how they will cope with increasing decrepitude. As a boy I often wondered why old people were often grumpy – now I know!

  • http://euonymous.wordpress.com euonymous

    I love this piece. It wasn’t quite what I expected, which is great. In the US the boomer generation (of which I’m one) used the phrase “don’t trust anyone over 30.” I think that was the beginning of an unhealthy disrespect for the wisdom and potential of old age. As I’ve grown and learned, I’ve come to resonate more with the Asian respect for elders than with the competitive US put downs of older employees, citizens, etc. Live and let live. Learn from those who have something to teach you.

  • Molly_Rn

    If you could have
    good health and do not have your friends and family die year after year, old age would be great fun. I think we fear being unable to care for ourselves, loosing those close to us in death, and loosing the ability to enjoy things like music (loosing hearing), reading (eyesight poor) and building or making
    things (hands shakey). And we don’t fear death so much as pain and/or being drugged up to “reduce your pain.” It is an odd thing to say well this is the last car or refrigerator or TV that I will buy (because it is unlikely that you will live long enough to need another. Life is so wonderful even at
    it’s worst that to loose it is sad. Like the old ladies talking about the food at a resort, the first one says: The food is awful, and the other replys: and there is so little of it.