Segal argues that we can best understand age as a state of flux – a state in which we have access to “all the selves we have been.” This multiple perspective can make us feel like time travelers and renders us psychically “all ages and no age.”
Many smart older women are hailing “Out of Time” as the book they’ve been waiting for. In it Segal, a London-based feminist and professor of psychology, explores her own fears and biases about growing old. She speaks to the generation of political radicals and sexual revolutionaries who mobilized against many isms – but not ageism – and who have been prone to negativity, self-loathing and even despair as they’ve gotten older.
Segal spoke to Senior Planet by phone in between book events.
Your book challenges the narrative of aging “well” – staying young, fit and independent. Why is challenging that idea important to you?
There are really the two narratives of aging: aging badly, which is showing your age, becoming more fragile and dependent; and aging well. Of course we all want to age well – to stay fit and independent – but the point is that in the end we can’t. To recognize old age as a stage of life is to recognize that we do become a little more fragile, a little more dependent, a little more needy.
What worries me about the narrative of aging “well” is that it is itself a rejection of old age. Of course, “You don’t look that old!” is something we all want to hear. We all like to feel younger. And indeed sometimes we do feel younger. And then other times we feel very old. We all fluctuate in that way. We all time travel – it’s a sort of temporal vertigo. But we don’t actually stay young. I want to affirm old age as a significant part of life, as something that can be valued.
You talk about this idea of aging as fluctuating between our older and younger selves…
Yes, we’re all the selves we have been, as well as the older self we are.
Do you think this makes the project of identity more difficult as we age, because we have so many different selves to assimilate?
I think the project of identity is something we always have to work at. We’re always trying to work out who we are, whether we’re doing what we want to do, and where we’re going. I think a lot of people as they get older actually become more self-accepting. Although it’s also true that you have to deal with all the very negative things that are usually projected on to older people, and particularly women: We become more and more invisible from midlife. Women are aged much faster than men.
Do you mean that our culture ages women – and that it ages women faster than it ages men?
As we’re approaching middle age, we start to become less visible as people in the world, and certainly in the media – on television, in film and so on. Whereas the same thing doesn’t happen to men. The really negative and frightening images of old age are usually images of women: the witch, the harridan, the crone. All these make it difficult to know how we can affirm ourselves as older women. And so in the book I look at people who are mentors, who have aged and stayed engaged with the world even when they’ve been unwell, unfit.
How do we stay engaged despite the culture – and the pains?
What I realized in getting old is that our concern about the world helps us escape the gloomy tyrant of the self, and also the pains of the self. Life is about our relationship to others and our concern for the world, and hopefully the world’s concern for us.
There’s an aging population all around the world. We have to work out the best ways of dealing with that and not just the race around talking about the tsunami of demented oldies that are going to be piling up in the streets.
Yes, we’re older, we’ve learned some things, we know a few tricks now actually. We’re not just pushing to get to the top of everything. We’re really looking around and we can tell you a few things.
So, are women aging more gracefully because they have more experience than men?
It’s much harder for a woman in middle age to find herself a new partner than it is for a man. However, women can cope much better. Female friendship is something we’ve all learned to value. And I think there’s something else that makes it harder for men to cope: The problems associated with old age – dependency and fragility – have always been seen as quintessentially female problems. They’re not, but that’s how they’ve been seen. And so I think a lot of men are terribly fearful that what happens as they age is that they become more like women; this fear that the man literally can’t get it up. I think that’s something that does make it harder for some men to work out how to age gracefully.
It’s certainly the case that more women have been writing about old age and about the possible pleasures and ways of enjoying life far more than men have.
In the book, you give several examples of heterosexual women whose sexual orientation has shifted as they’ve aged. Would you say this is a trend?
I’ve found evidence to suggest that more older women who are alone have found companionship and sometimes sexual companionship as well with other women. In my book I write about Amber Hollibaugh, for instance, who headed up an organization called SAGE [Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders]. They ran coming-out classes for women over 80 and they had to close the doors on the meetings, so many women were showing up! I do know older women, including myself, who have women partners now. But I don’t want to overstate it, because desire is a very complicated thing.
Some have suggested that aging has become less taboo in pop culture. Would you agree? I’m thinking specifically of the film “Amour” – but some were very critical of it.
We have so many representations of women in dementia. There have been about a dozen films recently; “Amour“ is among them. And I find it problematic, not because I don’t think we need to face up to the fact that a significant minority of people will suffer from dementia, but because there are so many other ways of being old, and even for people with dementia, there are more useful ways of thinking about how to relate to them and ways of caring for them.
I refer to books like Elinor Fuchs “Making an Exit” and Judith Levine’s “Do You Remember Me?” These authors were able to have very loving relationships with their older parents with dementia – indeed, were able to relate to them in new ways that they greatly value. I think that [“Amour” director] Michael Haneke has a slightly sadistic aesthetic. There’s so much pain in it, that while I think it was quite a good film and might make people think about what it is to be stranded alone caring for someone who’s extremely ill, why was he so alone? Why was there no social help? I want to see more films with more openings to how older people do still make lives together.
I’m organizing a conference on my book in London, and there have been all sorts of suggestions about which film to show. I’ve said no films about dementia! The one we’re going to go with came out of Toronto: “Strangers in Good Company,” about a busload of older women who get lost in the desert, and they’re all telling stories and amusing each other. We may have memory loss and ailments and other things, but that doesn’t mean we can’t age in joyful ways.
Would you say that technology helps?
I think it’s really wonderful that we have Facebook and all the other ways of being in touch with the world when we are completely bedridden, and I’ve seen studies where people have talked about being gifted their life back by being on Facebook. We can Skype people around the world, we can stay in touch with our children and loved ones wherever they are. It’s a wonderful thing that we’re terribly lucky to have, and I’m sure that it will keep improving as well. The only downside is when it’s thought to solve each and every problem.
You acknowledge that your generation is not as silent or invisible as aging generations of the past, but also that there’s still a long way to go. What do you envision?
One big problem is that our fate as we get older is so very uneven – the way in which class and poverty and other issues are going to affect how easily we can age. I fear this is going to deepen. I think that some of us, and I include myself here, are in a quite privileged situation in terms of having reasonable pensions, having built up networks of friends across generations.
So what I hope to see is more bridging of the generations and a beating back of the excesses of ageism, the horrible images of what it means to get old. We need to get nicer, gentler, more loving images of older people. That’s one thing I want to see a cultural shift toward; another is a valuing of memories and the fact that we all hope to lead long lives. And if we hope to lead long lives then however young we are, as Simone de Beauvoir said, we’ve got to see ourselves in this old woman or that old man. That old person is us: We will be them. My dream of the future is that we become more able to do that.
“Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing” (Verso) is available now on Amazon and in most bookstores.
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