Brilliant insights from Penelope Lively

She points out that definitions of when old age begins vary with the age you actually are and for most people, old age seems like alien territory.  She comments on her own childhood relationship with her grandmother: “I never thought about how it must be to be her; equally, I couldn’t imagine her other than she was, as though she had sprung thus into life, had never been young.”Penelope Lively reflects on reaching 80 in a superb two page article in The Guardian Review on October 5, called ‘So this is old age’.  It is a rich interweaving of her own experience with insights from some of the best writers on the subject.

penelope lively

Linked to this, she quotes from Simone de Beauvoir’s extensive study, Old Age: “Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species.”  Yet this alien species is growing fast: Penelope points out that by 2030 there will be 4 million people over 80 in the UK.  More shockingly, I have realised that I will be one of them!

Penelope Lively paints a rich picture of the upsides and downsides of being 80.  She realises that she does not envy the young, nor does she want to be young again.  She deeply enjoys the pleasures life still brings her,  finds that she has let go easily of some desires (eg travelling), but misses some of the joys of the middle age, such as gardening.  She also comments “I can remember falling in love, being in love; life would have been incomplete without that particular exaltation, but I wouldn’t want to go back there.”

Penelope Lively has interesting comments on ‘a new and disturbing relationship with time.  It is as though you advanced along a plank hanging over a canyon: once, there was a long reassuring stretch of plank ahead; now there is plank behind, plenty of it, but only a few plank paces ahead. ..Time has looped backed, regressed, it no longer lies ahead but behind.’

Whilst this piece says plenty about the poignancy of being old, I find it on balance uplifting, as there is also a sense of richness.   For example, “with those old consuming vigours now muted, something else comes into its own – an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in.  Spring was never so vibrant; … People are of abiding interest…”

Whilst my recent book is titled Out of the Woods: A guide to life for men beyond 50, I readily admit that its focus is more the 50s, 60s and 70s, than what lies beyond.  What the young-old can learn from Penelope Lively is both to enjoy everything they still have, but also not to panic about the old-old phase ahead.