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The last gasp

Tazrian Khan

My computer, which has a hostile mind of its own, has recently taken to demanding what exercise regime I would like to join. Several choices are offered, but not my choice: “None of the above.” Exercise regime, at my age, in high summer?

A lot of senior citizens in search of eternal youth are dauntingly active these days. They haunt the gym or the swimming pool every day or run ten miles at dawn or do Tai Chi or Kung Fu or Pilates, whatever it is, or one of the other tortures invented for the fragile human body.

Far from being healthy this seems like a plot to hasten us on our way and save on the social security budget. Earlier generations didn’t act like this. When they reached retirement age they stopped, quite literally, and took it easy. Bodies get old and creaky just like machines. It makes no sense to hammer our bones and muscles when they are already three-quarters worn out. It’s like putting a classic car in the Indianapolis 500 when it should be in a museum. My grandmother, who barely moved for the last thirty years of her life, lived to be a hundred, and my mother, following the same regime, lived to a hundred and three. People like to say things like “eighty is the new sixty,” but I can tell you for a fact that eighty is the new seventy-nine and three quarters. The biological clock hasn’t changed.

I have heard rumors that in ancient times old people were allowed to just relax and dodder about taking naps and pursuing amusing hobbies.

Confucius said: "Old age is a good and pleasant thing. It is true you are gently shouldered off the stage, but then you are given such a comfortable front seat as a spectator."

That’s history too. Now we are expected to be eternally on-stage, eternally active, like the near-historic Rolling Stones, and adventurous like those octogenarians who climb Everest or sail alone around the world when they could and should be reading a good book in a well-padded rocking chair. Retirement has become just another name for career change. The only advantages of age that I can see are discounts — very occasional and very small) — and Medicare, which is just a device, like a field hospital on a battlefield, for turning exhausted seniors around and sending them back into the fight.

To add insult to injury we are bombarded with inappropriate images of age from drug advertising where the unfortunate seniors are shown smiling and even ecstatic about the awful disease that will allow them to take this new pill, and from retirement communities that appear in their brochures like eternal summer camps. Everyone is smiling or laughing and everyone is — a favorite word — active. I’ve visited a number of retirement communities and they aren’t like that. People look perfectly normal and not at all as if they had been injected with some happiness drug. Of course, smiling is now obligatory in the presence of a camera, that’s why dentures were invented. But this is smiling taken to extremes.

It would be refreshing and perhaps even profitable if advertisers and marketers who are trying to catch the attention of seniors would show us as serious, grown-up, and able to make sensible choices without grinning like carnival clowns. Then we might even be able to recognize ourselves.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.