Old age is not exactly a time of life that most of us welcome, although globally speaking it is a privilege to reach it. In Western societies, the shocked realisation that we are growing old often fills us with alarm and even terror. As Simone de Beauvoir writes in her magisterial study of the topic, La vieillesse (1970) – translated in the UK as Old Age, and in the US as The Coming of Age (1972) – old age arouses a visceral aversion, often a ‘biological repugnance’. Many attempt to push it as far away as possible, denying that it will ever happen, even though we know it already dwells within us.
In fleeing from our own old age, we also seek to distance ourselves from its harbingers – from those who are already old: they are ‘the Other’. They are (with some exceptions) viewed as a ‘foreign species’, and as ‘outside humanity’. Excluded from the so-called normal life of society, most are condemned to conditions where their sadness, as Beauvoir puts it, ‘merges with their consuming boredom, with their bitter and humiliating sense of uselessness, and with their loneliness in the midst of a world that has nothing but indifference for them’. Beauvoir’s work sets out to show how old people are viewed and treated as the Other ‘from without’ and also – by drawing on memoirs, letters and other sources – to present their experiences ‘from within’. Her aim is to ‘shatter’ what she calls the ‘conspiracy of silence’ surrounding the old for, she insists, if their voices were heard, we would have to acknowledge that these were ‘human voices’ (emphasis added).
On Beauvoir’s view, most societies prefer to shut their eyes rather than see ‘abuses, scandals, and tragedies’ – they opt for the ease of accepting what is, instead of the self-scrutiny and struggle that is required to envision and enact what life could be. Speaking of her own society, she claims that it cared no more about orphans, young offenders or the disabled than it did about the old. However, what she finds astonishing about the latter case is that ‘every single member of the community must know that his future is in question; and almost all of them have close personal relationships with some old people’. So what explains this failure to face our future, to see the humanity in all human life?
Beauvoir’s answer is that famous existentialist phenomenon: bad faith. She believes that bad faith is a persistent human temptation, but that it does not take the same shape in all lives, or at all stages of life. In general terms, bad faith is the over-identification with one of two poles of human existence: on the one hand, there are all the contingent and unchosen facts about you, such as when and where you were born, your parents, your country, your material conditions, the shape, colour and ability of your body. They also, and importantly, include your dependency on other human beings and their dependence on you. This pole Beauvoir calls ‘facticity’.
The other pole, ‘freedom’, concerns your ability to act as you will, within the constraints of your situation, to take up and transform these facts. If you are a waitress with no corporate experience and you apply to be a CEO, this is likely to involve facticity-denying bad faith. If you are a waitress and conclude that you will never be anything but a waitress, this is likely to involve freedom-denying bad faith: you are foreclosing your possibilities by concluding that only what already is could ever be. So how does this temptation affect our attitudes toward the old? Beauvoir thinks that the not-yet-old are guilty of facticity-denying bad faith: their aversion to the already-old expresses an attempt to flee from their own ageing and mortality. This flight may offer them temporary refuge from unwanted futures but, for the old people they flee, it creates a hostile and lonely world.
After all, the not-yet-old may want or resent what the old have and they lack
In her analysis of old age, Beauvoir expresses sadness and outrage at the bad faith of the not-yet-old with respect to the old. On her assessment, a characteristic attitude of the not-yet-old is ‘duplicity’. On the one hand, many acknowledge that the old deserve respect – at least the respect befitting any person, if not the greater, relative respect befitting a person whose life and learning are great. On the other hand, ‘it is in the adult’s interest to treat the aged man as an inferior being and to convince him of his decline’. Alongside preaching an official ethics of respect, in practice the words and actions of the not-yet-old are frequently demeaning. Consider, for example, Father William, the subject of Robert Southey’s didactic poem ‘The Old Man’s Comforts’ (1799) – and Lewis Carroll’s scornful satire of it in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Southey’s Father William is put forward as an exemplar of life well lived, hearty and hale, and worth learning from:
You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
The few locks which are left you are grey;
You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man,
Now tell me the reason I pray.
But then, Carroll:
‘You are old, Father William,’ the young man said,
‘And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?’
Adults’ relationships with the old are frequently characterised by ambivalence: many scorn the idea that there is anything to be learned from those whose hair is so laughably scarce or lacking melanin. After all, old age is not always healthy or wise, and the not-yet-old may want or resent what the old have and they lack – most obviously in terms of resources and wealth. Instead of acknowledging the mixture of their motives, or questioning the values that shape them, Beauvoir claims that many adult children do their best to make their parents ‘aware of [their] deficiencies and blunders so that the old [person] will hand over the running of his affairs, give up advising him and submit to a passive role’.
The bad faith of the not-yet-old can take many forms: one of its common manifestations involves disgust at bodily decline. Edward Said’s description of his 1979 encounter with Jean-Paul Sartre exemplifies this shock and revulsion – Said is appalled by Sartre’s frailty, dependence, and lack of bodily control:
Sartre’s presence, what there was of it, was strangely passive, unimpressive, affectless. He said absolutely nothing for hours on end. At lunch he sat across from me, looking disconsolate and remaining totally uncommunicative, egg and mayonnaise streaming haplessly down his face. I tried to make conversation with him, but got nowhere. He may have been deaf, but I’m not sure. In any case, he seemed to me like a haunted version of his earlier self, his proverbial ugliness, his pipe and his nondescript clothing hanging about him like so many props on a deserted stage.
Although it may have been amplified by Said’s shock that such a fate awaits even a ‘great man’, his repulsion and lack of sympathy for Sartre are all too typical of how the old are judged ‘from without’.
More than half a century has passed since Beauvoir’s Old Age was published, and many things have changed – and yet they have also stayed the same. The ‘conspiracy of silence’ has been replaced by a proliferation of public discourses about the old, who are now more often euphemistically referred to as ‘seniors’ or ‘the elderly’. However, for the most part, these discourses still treat the old ‘from without’ and their voices are not heard. Instead, they are presented as ‘problem’ objects: the old are a ‘they’ about which ‘we’ (the active members of the society of which they are no longer deemed a part) need to decide what should be done. But rather than considering how to enable people to flourish in old age for as long as possible, much of the focus is on what ‘they’ are said excessively to consume and how ‘they’ are harming society. An ever-growing number of those aged over 65 today belong to the post-Second World War ‘baby boomer’ generation, and it is about this so-called ‘gray tsunami’ that the silence has been displaced by voluble expressions of hostility and sometimes panic.
In profit-driven, market societies, as Beauvoir argues, human worth is often measured in abstract, economic terms, and cost-benefit values – which judge people primarily by their utility – predominate. Such values cohere with bad faith attitudes toward the old, and they mutually reinforce each other, a tendency that is especially marked in attitudes toward the ‘boomers’. They are accused of being a privileged generation who, having feathered their nests during the period of postwar economic growth, are now unjustly devouring resources at the expense of the young. They are simplistically blamed for a variety of ills that have complex and structural causes, and have even been called ‘a generation of sociopaths’. The question of intergenerational justice is important. However, it is also important that the boomers are far too different from each other to be regarded as a monolithic social category, sociologically speaking. We should not be satisfied with false generalisations to explain the effects of large-scale socioeconomic changes that are more complex.
Moreover, economic issues are far from the only ones. Respect and social recognition are also vital, and the stereotype of the ‘greedy’ boomers adds to the panoply of demeaning characterisations of the old that Beauvoir depicts. Today, the term ‘ageism’ is sometimes used (roughly analogously to ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’) to describe the array of social attitudes and practices through which the old are rendered ‘Other’. Not all old people are subject to ageism equally or in the same ways, and some (such as older politicians and business leaders) may, for a time, be less affected by it. However, few can fully escape its more insidious forms.
The old are still treated with a ‘contempt not unmixed with disgust’ that casts them ‘outside humanity’
Ageism is still so deeply engrained as to go undetected. Stereotypes (often especially hostile to women) are learned and internalised in childhood, from the wicked old witches and vicious aunts in children’s stories (think Hansel and Gretel; think Roald Dahl), to demeaning representations of old age seen on various media, to overhearing parents and others ridicule old relatives or call them a burden. In these ways, children learn to participate in the general social stigmatisation of the old that they will then perpetuate as adults.
But it is not only that the bodily signs of old age – wrinkles, grey hair, deafness, perhaps dribbling one’s food as Sartre did, a shuffling walk, and so forth – incite aversion. In addition, such signs are often wrongly taken to reveal the entire ‘inner’ being of an old person. The visibly old are commonly presumed to be incompetent and unable to engage in meaningful or socially valuable activities, even though this is usually not the case. They are assumed to be dementing when they have not lost their mental acuity, and they are often spoken to in the condescending, infantilising tones known as ‘elderspeak’. They are – conveniently – assumed to have few needs or desires that society ought to address. They are expected to dress and act as people of their age ‘should’ – and the idea of sexual activity among them remains shocking. In short, the old are still treated with a ‘contempt not unmixed with disgust’ that, as Beauvoir puts it, seeks to cast them ‘outside humanity’. Such attitudes serve to legitimise their social exclusion and to justify the general lack of concern with their material and existential needs.
From within, this banishment is experienced as an alienating and gratuitous degradation. Unlike the inevitable diminishment of the body, it is avoidable if we are willing to listen to the voices of the old – and to work for conditions in which decline and death are not accompanied by this degradation:
When you see me sitting quietly,
Like a sack left on the shelf,
Don’t think I need your chattering.
I’m listening to myself …
I’m the same person I was back then,
A little less hair, a little less chin,
A lot less lungs and much less wind.
But ain’t I lucky I can still breathe in.
– from ‘On Aging’ (1993) by Maya Angelou
What, then, should a society be like, so that all may flourish in their last years of life? One answer is that there is no one answer to this question. For, contrary to how they are often treated, old people are not a homogenous ‘they’. Their needs and desires may be very diverse and, for many, these are also likely to alter over time as they experience increasing debilities and disease. What is called ‘old age’ can span several decades of a person’s life, often involving shifts from an initial, post-retirement period of greater relative autonomy, to an increasing dependency on the care of others. The differences between the lives of those in what social gerontologists call the active ‘third age’ and those in the ‘fourth age’ of advanced ‘frailty and impairment’ can be immense. Even so, one can characterise the needs of old people under two general, but strongly intertwined, criteria: first, meeting their material requirements (broadly conceived); and, second, offering them recognition, both as individuals and as a group that continues to have a valued place in society.
The material needs for flourishing in old age include far more than a generous personal income. Public resources should be greatly extended from their present levels to meet the needs of those (including some younger people, too) who, for example, are deaf, blind or less mobile. From redesigning the built environment to create greater access, to establishing more spaces for social participation, to the generous provision of high-quality personal prosthetics, we must work to furnish many such resources. Providing them should not be seen as an unfair ‘burden’ on the not-yet-old but, rather, as public goods that they too will enjoy in their later years.
But here we return to the problem of the bad faith flight from our own old age and the aversion to the already-old it engenders. Seeing the old as a ‘foreign species’ allows us to ignore that we are already incipiently its members. ‘We must stop cheating,’ Beauvoir writes. ‘If we do not know what we are going to be, we cannot know what we are; let us recognise ourselves in this old man, or that old woman.’ She is surely right that what it is to be a human being is at issue in how we see the old. However, recognising ourselves in our older elders is far from easy to achieve, so deep is our fear of old age and so ingrained society’s ageism.
Beauvoir gives us a truncated account of old age that excludes the ‘fourth age’
Against the combined forces of personal fear and social stigma, what is to be done? Beauvoir argues that society must be radically reconstructed, that we must ‘change life itself’, so that, instead of suffering exclusion, deprivation and misery, the old can remain – and be recognised – as active and valued members:
There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning – devotion to individuals, to groups or to causes, social, political, intellectual or creative work … in old age we should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in on ourselves. One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, compassion.
The vision of meaningful activity that Beauvoir offers here assumes the continuation into old age, if somewhat diminished, of the passions and vitality that fuel the projects of younger adults. This is an admirable ideal with regard to those in the ‘third age’. However, Beauvoir does not consider whether those who have become so debilitated that they can do little or nothing might still have lives of value. She gives us a truncated account of old age that excludes the ‘fourth age’, when activity such as she describes it ceases to be possible.
Rather than speculate about the reasons for her omission, we propose that we need to rethink meaningful activity in other, less demanding, terms than Beauvoir’s. Today, those in the fourth age still remain the most invisible. Their mobility is severely limited, or precluded, by their impairments, and they are the most confined and sequestered. They are often also less able to give an account of their experience than the more robust ‘young-old’ of the ‘third age’. Indeed, some of them literally cannot speak: they may be unable to communicate about their most basic needs, to those who (one hopes) look after them. This may be particularly the case for those with severe dementia, as well as for others, for example, after a major stroke. Their experiences – be they of their own bodies, of other people, of time or, indeed, of approaching death – usually remain an unknown blank for the rest of us. Thus, even if we can succeed in overcoming our bad faith, as Beauvoir urges, and cease to view them as members of a feared ‘foreign species’, they still seem to be the inhabitants of cut-off, different worlds. Theirs are worlds that most of us do not know how to enter, and that we have difficulty imagining.
Yet their worlds may not be devoid of value and meaning. Even when overt, physical or linguistic expression becomes near-impossible, there may still be desires, intentions, feelings for others. And there are entry-points to these worlds that can be explored. For example, there are memoirs by some in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s; and there are narratives by close family members, who have struggled to grasp how the world feels to a much-loved person who now has dementia. There are also descriptions of life after a stroke; or of trying to adapt to a world in which one discovers one can no longer see.
To conclude, in addition to addressing our own bad faith, it is also vitally important to break the ‘conspiracy of silence’ about this furthest frontier of old age where Beauvoir herself did not venture. For it is the oldest of the old whose humanity is least recognised. It is they who are conceived as no more than bodies, who are treated as inert objects, considered outside humanity. And it is we who must resist their degradation.