An ancient question: how ripe is a ripe old age?

By Stephen Frosh, June 27, 2011
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You're Looking Very Well
by Lewis Wolpert; Faber and Faber, £14.99

Is That All There Is?
by Julia Neuberger; Rider, £12.99

Amortality
by Catherine Mayer; Vermilion, £12.99

After a while, you notice that you're getting older. It is odd that it should come as a surprise to so many people. Some have always lived very long lives: we know from George Gershwin's It ain't necessarily so that the ancients lived for several hundred years.

But most died young. Lewis Wolpert notes: "In London in 1800 you could expect to live to just 30, in 1900 to 42, in 1950 to 61, and now to about 80."

Around the world, life expectancy varies substantially but Jews tend to reach ages that average around the top of the list. This has its upside and downside. More people can look forward to a long period of gradually reducing work and retirement, mostly in reasonable bodily and mental condition. But ailments accumulate, memories go, and there are numerous economic, health and social issues to face - not least, how to fund the care of elderly people.

Ageing is certainly about life as much as it is about death, but the imminence of death is nevertheless central. Julia Neuberger asks, "Is that all there is?" but does not actually use the most disturbing line of Peggy Lee's dark song.

Challenged with why she does not "end it all" if she feels this way, the singer replies, "Oh, no. Not me. I'm in no hurry for that final disappointment." This cynicism is not something that Neuberger would endorse. She does, however, recognise that finding positive meaning in getting older does not necessarily come easily.

Statistics show that old people are happier than younger ones

Catherine Mayer deals with ageing by avoiding it: "Amortality" stems from the denial of getting older, something she seems personally invested in even though she knows full well the dangers of pretending to be younger than one is. "Living agelessly" is how she defines amortality; much of it really seems more like living infantilely. Or perhaps living without a future tense: nothing is going to change.

Neuberger and Mayer tell us quite a bit about their mothers; they also tell us a great deal about themselves, including in Mayer's case the decision not to have children, which presumably is one reason why she is attracted to "amortality" rather than "legacy", which frames much of Neuberger's thinking.

Wolpert's book is in many ways the least personal of the three, stacked with data and premised on the idea that "evolution" is uninterested in the old, allowing them to wither once they have fulfilled their reproductive role.

Yet there is also a personal twinge in his book giving it a sense of urgency. Some of this lies in his familiarity with his biological source material, the fruit of a long, illustrious career in developmental biology. Writing about how germ cells do not suffer age-related damage because they are necessary for production of the next generation, he writes: "Evolution knows this and ensures that they do not age. By contrast, body cells do age, and evolution only cares to limit this so that reproduction can occur."

Wolpert understands that evolution "knows" and "cares" about nothing at all, but his personification brings it alive. There is also a glimpse of a terrain of the kind that might dismay Neuberger or tempt her into a moralism: commenting on how hard he finds retirement, Wolpert writes: "There are also, I regret, times when I wonder what the point of continuing to live really is."

It is perhaps not surprising that the oldest of these three authors should put his finger so firmly on the big issue that ageing invokes. Statistics seem to show that old people are happier than younger ones, at least while they have their health; but what keeps peeking through attempts to "find meaning" is death, which some people face with dread, and others with matter-of-factness.

The greatest Jewish book on ageing, Ecclesiastes, says: "Of making many books there is no end". Perhaps this is because one purpose of books like these, aside from their laudable attempts to document the processes and perplexities of growing old and to speak out for the necessary standards of care for the elderly, is to stave off that final, great disappointment.

Stephen Frosh is Professor of Psychology at Birkbeck College, London. His latest book is 'Feelings' (Routledge)

    Last updated: 10:23am, June 27 2011