War? What is it good for? Well, on a metaphorical level it names an enemy and endows that enemy with a powerfully negative image. We have “wars” on drugs, cancer, heart disease, AIDS and obesity. There is also a “war” on aging.
Roger Watson, writing in the Journal of Clinical Nursing asks:
The question, however, remains as to why we are engaged in this battle. Collectively, as mentioned above, ageing on a mass scale is relatively new territory for society. We have not learned to adapt to it, we fear it; therefore, we want to fight it.
This is an interesting idea and there is certainly a long history of human societies rejecting and fighting against things that are new and different. But. It is also true that the internet is new and smartphones are new but we are not at war with them. In fact, these “new” innovations, unlike human aging, are embraced with a world historical fervor.
Ageing and death are almost synonymous in people’s minds but, again, this is a relatively new phenomenon. In past centuries ageing and death were not synonymous because death commonly took place at a young age, and usually unexpectedly. Now we see ageing as the road to death and the longer we can make that road or the more bearable we can make it, the better. Of course, this fear is fuelled by the cosmetics industry and the fight has been joined by science and medicine.
I disagree with the idea that the link between aging and death is something new. In fact, there is abundant evidence that, in ancient times, people were very well aware of the proximity of old age and death. Artists depicted the Grim Reaper in the form of an old man– not that of a young man. Furthermore, on an objective basis, today’s old age is VASTLY superior to the old age of old. This is the best time to grow old— ever.
While there is a great deal of work on lifestyle adaptations: exercise, diet, substance abuse (principally tobacco and alcohol) which has some scientific basis regarding positive, but modest, effects on ageing and lifespan (Kirkwood 1999); these do not offer sufficiently quick fixes for those who have been attacked via the soft underbelly of vanity, sexual attractiveness, sexual potency and, ultimately, the fear of social and biological oblivion.
Yeah. This hits home. Preparation for a good old age depends first and foremost on one’s genes. We have no control over the genes we inherit from our parents so we can’t do much about that issue. Then comes common sense approaches to diet and exercise. We can do something about these things but it’s rarely fun and the benefits are mostly distant and uncertain. Where is the excitement? Where is the thrill of victory?
Without doubt, the cosmetics industry fuels and subsequently plays up to these fears and, with the general population buying rejuvenating products in increasing quantities, encouraged by an advertising industry biased towards youth and sexual potency (Carrigan & Szmigin 2000), the caring professions – including nursing – cannot be immune to these fears. Likewise, the entertainment industry tends to promote, especially where women are concerned, an image of youth and beauty that is not representative of the population. Therefore, what effect does this have on us and how should we react?
People really can buy products that help them “look younger.” They can not, however, buy products that will actually make them younger. The cosmetics industry is selling “hope in a jar.” I’m not opposed to that and there are some very good reasons why people living in a virulently ageist society would want to “look younger.” But. The best way to end the “war against aging” is to create a new, enriched, and truly meaningful vision of old age as a station of worth, dignity and beauty. We can begin “peace negotiations” with old age and, ultimately discover (I hope) that there is much more to aging— than meets the eye.
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