I just read an intriguing book by Marc Augé, entitled Everyone Dies Young. Augé is a distinguished and famous anthropologist; he was eighty-one in 2016 when he published this slim volume of essays about old age. It starts with the story of Mounette, his first cat, who aged without the psychological constraints that human beings struggle with as they age, and this cat yet knew her own limitations. As Mounette aged, she gave up leaping to the beloved mantel and contentedly spent days in the sunshine in a soft chair by the window. When she could not leap onto the chair, she lay on the floor. The old cat was not perturbed. Like the elderly human, it had time. Unlike the human, it had no age: “Time is a freedom, age a constraint. The cat, apparently, does not know this constraint.”
We all feel the “constraint” of age in various ways. Aches and pains remind us. Other people remind us. And then there is the mirror. In medieval literature (Langland, Gower), the mirror is the vehicle which confronts us with our own age. In “The Uncanny,” Freud tells of his surprise that the reflection of the old man in the window is his self. Robert Graves and Thomas Hardy write poignant poems about what they see in the mirror. They are alternately puzzled and outraged. And why does the mirror sometimes surprise us? Because we feel young inside. That continuing self, the “person” that we were at twenty, is still there somewhere, but now is enshrouded with a wrinkled and faded façade.
It is a truism that “you are only as old as you feel.” Nevertheless, one of the worse things that our culture can say about our older comrades is that “they are showing their age,” which usually means they are “acting old” (never a good thing). Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist, posited that feeling younger psychologically would have a positive effect on the physical body and did the famous “counterclockwise” experiment in which she moved a group of elders into an environment that mimicked (or maybe mocked) the world of 1959, the world of their youth. They watched old television programs, read old magazines, discussed old headlines. And there were no mirrors. The staff treated them as if they were young; no one helped them with their luggage or condescended to them. At the end of the week, they showed improvement in almost all measurable areas – cognitive, physical, perceptual. Of course, there was no control group and perhaps the group just profited from attention, socialization, and respect from the staff.
We know this kind of thing works. In this digital age, when our cell phone can design a radio program based on the music we listened to in our youth (and isn’t that the music we all love?), we get a lift as one old favorite after another conjures up scenes and emotions from the days when our whole life was in front of us. We like talking about old times, particularly with someone who was there. We enjoy re-reading the books and re-watching the movies that shaped our lives, and all of it is available to us with a few clicks. We can bring 1959 back all by ourselves.
There is also the matter of memory. Many old people have much better memories of fifty years ago then they do of last week. True, we have had time to polish those memories, but they are there. Augé says that “with regard to our pasts, we are all creators and artists. We advance facing backward, forever observing and reconstructing the times gone by.” We can remember the lyrics to a song we haven’t heard for decades and the name of the friend who bought us our first cigarette. But, for dear life, we can’t remember the name of our neighbor’s husband. We are youthful in memory. Except in the face of physical ailments, we all feel young.
Augé ends with this from the title essay of Everyone Dies Young:
Time, as old age experiences it, is not the accumulated, ordered sum of the events of the past. It is a palimpsest; everything inscribed there does not reappear, and sometimes the earliest inscriptions surface most easily. Alzheimer’s disease is only an acceleration of the natural selection process of forgetting, at the end of which it seems that the most tenacious – if not the most faithful – images are often those of childhood. Whether we delight in this fact or deplore it, because there is a share of cruelty in such an observation, we must nevertheless admit it: everyone dies young. (85)
I recommend Augé’s little book. He approaches old age from the vantage point of being old and being trained as an anthropologist/ethnologist. He encourages us to look at old age as a cultural as well as a biological construction.
If you are interested in people and mirrors, you might try my old story, “Reflections.” I don’t like looking in the mirror myself, but don’t seem to be able to avoid it.