Old Age is Not a Foreign CountryA well-known saying floated into my head recently: “The past is another country.” Interesting, I thought, and wondered who said it first.

It turned out to be J. P. Hartley, the novelist, and it is the first line, slightly wrongly remembered, of his novel (later a movie), The Go Between:

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

I began to think about whether this is right or not, in terms of my own past, but then my thoughts took a different turn. The question that was buzzing in my head was whether the same was true of the future, when viewed from the perspective of younger people.

Is Being Old a Foreign Country?

When I was young – pick any age up to 55 or so – I definitely thought that the future was a foreign country. It would be strange to me, and it would be difficult to cope with.

And they would definitely “do things differently” there. I looked around at the old people I knew, and they clearly had different interests and temperaments and felt altogether different to me. It was not something I looked forward to.

Yes, I knew that at some point I would become an old lady, but that in itself seemed an odd concept. Me – old? Surely not. It was, literally, unimaginable.

At the same time, I thought that if it ever happened, I would be a different person when I got there. I would have the same name and the same history, of course, but there the resemblance would end.

Somehow, I thought that when I was magically transformed into this strange state of old womanhood, I would be unrecognisable. I would not be the me I had always known.

It was going to be hard – I would not know how to navigate all the twists and turns foisted on me by the passage of time.

It would be a double learning problem – a new me in a new landscape.

The Future Is Here

How very, very wrong could I be! Now that I am an old lady, by whatever measure, having recently reached the age of 79, I realise that old age is not another country at all.

Yes, there are aspects of my life that are different, but I don’t feel that I am wandering in a strange land. And there is a great deal that is very much the same.

Old age creeps up on us rather stealthily, even if we don’t make a fuss of our birthdays. Only a few things happen fast, like retirement from your lifetime’s work, although in my case, I worked freelance and work just slowly stopped coming in.

But generally, it just means a few things changing each year – the hair getting whiter, the wrinkles getting deeper, and so forth. You walk a little slower, your hearing becomes slightly more difficult, sometimes you even become shorter. I could list much more.

You get used to one thing, absorb that, and start getting used to another. There are very few shocks involved, in the absence of a significant death or illness, which is another matter altogether.

At the same time, other things happen, too. Some are definitely negative – friends die or become much more ill. Your energy slowly diminishes, so you tend to be more homebound.

But on the positive side, you may acquire grandchildren, and they may become a very active and joyful part of your life. Your relationships with your adult children change and deepen. You may develop new interests and activities.

And You’re Here, Too

And, most important, as you get used to these changes, you realise it is the same old you dealing with them. For good or ill, there is no amazing transformation. Whatever your character and personality at age 30, you will be the same at 60 – or 70 – and beyond.

If you were an optimist when you were young, you will find yourself still an optimist later. Have you had a tendency to fuss over unexpected events? You are almost certainly still fussing later. If you laughed at life’s vicissitudes, you will be laughing still.

I was reminded that when my mother was about 50, she declared to my father that she had decided to become an “eccentric” old lady. That sounded a good ambition, but my father laughed. “You’ve never been eccentric in your life,” he replied accurately. “So you won’t be eccentric then. You will be you.”

And he was proved right. She never became the least bit eccentric.

Knowing Yourself

I think this is good news, although perhaps not everyone will agree. It means that by the time you reach old age – however defined – you have lived with yourself a long time and know how to cope with your own individual ways.

Some things in your life will have changed and others remain very much the same. If you liked swimming or playing bridge then, you probably do so now. Yes, there are some new challenges, but they are softened by new joys.

Growing older changes both our internal and external environment in subtle ways. But it can still be a lot of fun!


This post was initially published by Sixtyandme.com (see https://sixtyandme.com/old-age-not-another-country/)