Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
AGEING: October 18, 1998
Beating the grey years
When a teenager, the impulse is to act as an adult!
When an adult the tendency is to act big!
When mature and grey, the craving is to look younger!
Our thoughts and reactions on the subject immediately zoom in on that increasing percentage of "elders" who take elaborate pains to hide the strands of grey or that slight wrinkle that has appeared from nowhere. As people face retirement and the expenses they should plan for, it is nowadays commonplace to include among the "essentials" besides medicare, telephone and petrol, an additional amount under the head "supplies" to include hair dyes and herbal compositions and anti-wrinkling creams.
Advertisements, media and even commonplace jokes are constantly doing the rounds on the ageing syndrome and the funny, but innumerable, ways in which people beat the tell-tale signs of ageing. To top it all is how happy they feel that they have almost overpowered the visible ageing process. Almost as if to endorse this perception and the resultant behaviour of the elders is the silent approval and even admiration showered by the imperceptible "audience" symbolising society in general and the younger generations in particular.
This is not all merely about hair dyes, false teeth, anti-wrinkling creams, the booming cosmetic industry or the increasing access to information.
It is all about an attitude - an altered status for the growing elders in a changing society. A clear response to the need for a changed lifestyle and position for the elderly in contemporary family and society.
The elders today are illustrating a common saying!
I am not what I think I am
It is all about the natural reaction to the fear of being isolated - pushed out from the epicentre of power, decision-making and importance within the realm of the family and outside; a fear of being stereotyped as having grown "old" and therefore condemned in the traditional sense to having acquired the dreaded qualities of being "old fashioned," conservative, inflexible and incapable of participating on contemporary issues. This is more so as the words "dynamic," productive, active, capable, seem to be associated with the young and middle-aged. But for those elders for whom these terms continue to hold meaning and apply to their lifestyles, the tell-tale sings of ageing hardly seem to be anything to be bothered about.
These are the types who already possess the attitude it takes to grow grey gracefully who continue to stay young at heart, lead healthy, active lives by keeping themselves busy. Invariably these are the kind of people who have an enormous number of friends and contacts in the younger age group and where combination of grey hair plus a contemporary attitude is a good mix for a leadership position or a mentoring role within that circle.
Whatever the physical and attitudinal response of the elders themselves, there is a growing economic response to this process - more creams mean a booming cosmetic consumer goods industry, more beauty parlours mean more entrepreneurs and more jobs, more sophisticated aids and devices to remove the years means a booming surgical software and related hardware industry. To top it all we now have drug formulations that will add years to life, and not merely life to years.
To end on a philosophical note, it is true that we cannot beat the process of ageing. But we surely can learn to live with it. This means coming to terms with it. Some let it be the natural way and live it out with a young-at-heart attitude. For the others who are not so sure at heart, there are any number of ways to make them feel younger.
"To the spirit of youth and vitality and all the good things that come with it - we the elders vote."
What then about those elderly folks who do not seem to care? - who still seem to flaunt their grey hair and could not be bothered less?
Parveen stood in front of the mirror and preened. At 52, she certainly was well preserved, she mused. Wait a minute, she told herself. "What is it I see there?" She couldn't believe her eyes. Overnight she seemed to have developed a grey patch. How could she have missed it all this while, she wondered. And she panicked. She better visit the beauty parlour, she told herself, to get it camouflaged before others noticed it. She could not concentrate on anything. She became listless and her self esteem hit an all time low.
Parveen's is not a stray case. Thousands of men and women panic at the slightest signs of ageing. It is almost as if life has come to a standstill. What is it about ageing that makes most of us press the panic button? Says 60-year-old Mrinalini, "All of us want to look young, eternally. Youth has this power to make you want to hold on to it for as long as you can. In a way, youth is heady. It is also associated with attention. It happened to me too. The grey hair part of ageing did not bother me much because one can always work on that. What made me depressed were the wrinkles. I still remember how terrible I felt. It was a week before my 50th birthday. I was looking at the mirror. And I actually looked old," she recalls, "I couldn't come to terms with the fact that I had begun looking like a hag" for quite some time. It was my mother who helped me pull through. Now, of course, I have accepted the fact that I am old. I take pride in the fact." she says.
Says psychoanalyst Poornima Rao, "The obsession with looking young was not as much as it is now. In the olden days people had the capacity and maturity to accept many occurrences in life as inevitable. They did not panic about things over which they had no control," she analyses. "To a large extent, I hold the media responsible for the changing attitudes. Hair dyes and anti-wrinkle products are flashed frequently in live as well as the print media. The focus seems to be on looking young and looking good. Cosmetic companies thrive by exploiting this very weakness."
"But then there are people who do believe in ageing gracefully. Like Leela Naidu nee Moraes was so famous for her characteristic grey patch. And she looked so beautiful. Because the radiance that emanated from her being, overshadowed the mere physical aspect of her personality. And how can we forget Indira Gandhi and her silver-grey patch. Quite a few actresses have copied her style when they had to essay the role of an elderly woman. That, I feel, is real style. Too much importance to looking young can be unhealthy. So many men and women do not realise how silly they look when they try to behave young or dress young."
Another classic example is that of Rekha, (not her real name) a socialite, who is all of 50 but insists that she is 36, even in the presence of people who have known her long. She doesn't realise that people actually laugh at her. There was a time when somebody asked her if she had became a mother at 12, for she had a 24-year-old son. And if she had achieved this feat, that she deserved a mention in the Guinness Book. That, however, had no deterrent effect on Rekha since she lived in a world of her own. How does one explain this? Says Poornima, "The lady in question, surely needs counselling because not accepting reality is a serious personality disorder. How else would you explain her reluctance to change even when she is being ridiculed. It is true that all of us have a narcissisitic streak in us, but when it exceeds limits, it needs to be cured."
Dayanand is another handsome 50-year-old father who refuses to accept the fact that he has aged. To deal with his bald pate, he has bought himself a wig which he sports with great elan. He plans to have a hair transplant shortly. Ask him about his obsession with youthful looks and he says, "Looking young makes me feel confident. I don't like it when somebody calls me an "old man." That's why I make an extra effort and take great pains to look young. Youth to me means power, he says. That he is a constant source of embarrassment for his teenaged daughters and son hardly matters to him. Says his college-going son, "I keep telling myself that when I grow old I should never behave the way papa does . He looks so ridiculous with that hideous wig, like one of those comic filmi characters."
But then it is not all that bad either. Because human beings have generally become much more health conscious. One look at the thriving health club business proves this point. Says Dr. Dikshit, a cardiologist, "There is no doubt that people have generally become more aware of the importance of keeping fit. It is heartening to see more and more people taking to exercising or at least walking. Considering the stressful and sedentary lifestyles people lead today, it feels good to see people becoming more conscious about their looks and health. May their tribe increase." Now didn't we say that every coin has two sides? If we didn't, we are saying it now. Like Sigmund Freud said, "It's all in the mind."
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