By Paulette Crowley
A friend confessed to me recently that she couldn’t wait to get old. Never mind the saggy bits, the wrinkles or the lines, she said. “I just want the freedom of not giving a flying rat’s arse any more. I want freedom from caring about what others think of me.”
Clutching at the last flush of youth in her late 30s, she’d had enough of the struggle of trying to hold on. Dying greys, spending a fortune on anti-wrinkle cosmetics and fighting a losing battle to regain her teen body had become a burden that didn’t seem worth pursuing any more.
Keeping up appearances takes up a lot of time and it’s fair to say, many begin to drop this baggage around middle-age. When you’ve done the hard yards of a middle-aged crisis, bid the kids goodbye and hopefully gained financial stability, there should be a lot less to worry about.
EMBRACING THE INNER GRUMP
There’s a keen sense of self-deprecating humour attached to the admission that we get a bit more cranky with age. Just look at the Grumpy Old Men movies, TV show Grumpy Old Women and other comedies. There’s a type of revelry in embracing one’s tetchiness and simply refusing to cooperate. Telling it how it is looks like a lot of fun, taking no prisoners while you do it.
But acknowledging our own grumpiness is a lot different from having our forthright attitudes noted and criticised by others, says Dr Nigel George, a clinical psychologist from the University of Auckland who researches successful ageing. The former mental health nurse who’s worked extensively with older people is a fan of the UK TV show Grumpy Old Women.
“The thing that struck me when I was watching it was I didn’t think those women were grumpy, I thought they were realistic. They seemed to be women who were voicing their opinion and speaking the truth in lots of ways.” The perception of crabbiness is misconstrued by many in our society, which is ageist, he says. “I don’t think it’s fair that expressing a straight-forward opinion can be labelled as grumpy.”
Older people have been around the block a few times, and have wisdom that should be shared and sought after. “We label them as grumpy, which means we can ignore them. It’s a really great way to say, your opinion doesn’t matter.
In our culture, we try and keep older people quiet.”
Basically, we’re just not respecting our elders and when we don’t like what they’ve got to say, we simply write them off as grumpy old gits.
There are physiological factors at play that can cause changes in behaviour. Our bodies can cause bedlam when they deteriorate and get sick and hormones wreak havoc for women going through menopause.
And just in case women think they’ve got the hormone haze covered, men too suffer from declining hormone levels during the last half of their lives.
By the time men reach 70 years, their testosterone levels are half what they were at their peak. Books about “irritable male syndrome”, when men are prone to bouts of rage and nerves due to hormone changes, abound on the internet, though there’s no science to support the theory.
Emotional and mental stress too; disappointments in relationships and jobs and keeping up with a rapidly changing society, can put a sour spin on your outlook. But overall, a bad mood is related to events and circumstances, and not directly caused by ageing, Dr George says.
“Grumpiness will come and go and is usually related to an issue: it shouldn’t be all day, every day. Depression is when mood is lowered for about two-to-three weeks and stays low, regardless of what happens around you.”
Although depression and anxiety affect every age group, they’re less likely to happen to people aged 60-75. Studies show, in fact, this is often the happiest time of your life, Dr George says.
Life satisfaction is high as a child and starts to deteriorate at the age of 18, until it gradually hits rock bottom at around 40-50. “This can be a pretty stressful time of life, with kids, mortgage and lots of responsibilities.” From middle age onwards, life usually improves thanks to less responsibilities, more stability and more time, and this is maintained until about 75.
“So, the perception that older people are grumpy is just weird. All the data suggests that in our population, they would be the happiest people. Kick up your heels, it’s the best time of your life.”
BETTER HEALTH EQUALS LESS GRUMPINESS
A caveat must be attached to myth-busting about crotchety old folk: you have to be in fairly good physical nick to be able to enjoy the ride, says Associate Professor Greg Anson, head of the Department of Exercise Sciences at the University of Auckland.
Not surprisingly, he’s an advocate of fitness for healthy physical, mental and emotional ageing. His prescription for healthy ageing, in line with prevailing medical advice, is to exercise regularly, eat well (a Mediterranean diet), socialise and laugh – a lot.
Exercising should be a pleasure and not too difficult – you don’t have to run a marathon to be fit, he says. Thirty minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week is a good start. Brisk walking is good, but a raft of other activities will also suffice. “It could be activity that is occupational, incidental, recreational, dancing, household chores, stretching or playing,” he says.
Another way to achieve the same benefits from the moderate 30 minutes of activity most days is to do more, but less often. “You could achieve the same doing 25 minutes of vigorous activity on at least three days every week.”
It’s never too late to start getting the benefits of exercise. A check-up with a GP and an assessment from an exercise professional is the place to start.
If you don’t fancy rolling up to a gym full of muscular, gorgeous young things, you could try seeing a clinical exercise physiologist, such as those graduating from a programme run by Dr Anson.
“The first intake graduated in 2014, and they’re slowly getting out there in the community.”
Once you get started, be realistic with what you expect from your body: it won’t perform as well as it used to – something Dr Anson, in the “70s area” has had to face himself.
“My wife and I play interclub tennis, where there is no age limit. We get a very sobering effect when we show up and end up playing a team of high school kids. They’re wonderfully athletic and fast, and we have to rely on our guile in order to try and outwit them, as there’s no way we have the speed or endurance to keep up with them.”
Being aware of the “end point”, or having it in plain sight, is enough to cut through any colonial British notion of keeping a stiff upper lip and being polite at all costs. Keeping a lid on your emotions or opinions just to keep the peace or appease others is just not important anymore.
“At the end of your life you’re perhaps less worried about what others think,” Dr Anson says. “You haven’t got much time to waste on other people’s opinions of you.”
INSIGHTS FROM SELF-CONFESSED GRUMP ALAN KNIGHT (56)
“When and where does it begin, this middle-aged grumpiness? Does your bathroom cabinet reach a point where it contains more undignified remedies than grooming products? Does the conspiracy
of twinges from back, knees and digestive system reach a definitive point where grumpiness is the only reasonable response? Does your hair, (assuming you still have any) suddenly look greyly back at you from the mirror one morning and say, “That’s it pal! The fun times are over! You are now old.”
Or is it that moment when you realise, standing in some over-lit shoe shop, that you have just bought a pair of carpet slippers, and worse, can’t wait to get home and put them on?
And what about those appalling young people? What on earth do they think they’re doing? Playing horrible hippy hoppy music, slouching and being quite unbearably youthful. Don’t they realise how annoying that is? The answer is probably a mixture of all the above. Where once things glowed with vim and vigour, now they sag, deflate and often ache. Youth, that fleeting illusion, is gone and, like our parents before us, we wake one morning to discover we have morphed into our parents.
Well, sic transit gloria mundi is all very well, but weren’t we the generation that were supposed to have found a way to beat all that? Weren’t we, as inventors of youth culture, entitled to keep on doing whatever we wanted, stay up as late as we liked, dance to whatever got our feet tapping and never even consider that time’s winged chariot was no longer hovering near but parked outside, sounding its horn?
Of course we were. And pharmacies everywhere are bursting at the seams with pills, powders and unguents to keep us that way. But, as that irascible Cambridge don Donald Trefusis (a fictional character created by Stephen Fry) points out, “Silly shallow people talk of being young at heart. Fools. They miss the dreadful splendour of being old at heart.”
Damn straight. Perhaps our true path to contentment, as we slide toward our dotage, is to realise that we may now speak with a freedom we could never have imagined before.
As callow whippersnappers we held our tongues for fear of sounding foolish. Now, we simply say whatever we like, giggling helplessly inside as we witness the looks of horror we cause.
I for one would rather be annoying than right. Who’s with me?”
This article was first published in Your Weekend, November 12, 2016
Photo: Peter Rees