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Alan Hamilton - Author & Editor

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Fears and concerns

as you grow old

Tired of living. . . feared of dying
I happened to be listening recently to 'Ol man river' from Showboat, and although I've known the song almost as long as I've lived, the words 'I'm tired of living, feared of dying' stuck firmly with me, leading to the resumption of my blog on issues around ageing.
Doesn't that line sum up for most of us what we feel as we enter the final stretch of our marathon of life? For a long time already, we will have feared the lead up to death.


The physical and mental degradation that accompanies it, the dependence on others, the unspoken (though not always) 'writing-off' of us by those coming along behind. If we have any sensitivity we'll have observed this as others grow old before we do. Earlier, the only fears that might have kept us awake at night had been mostly work-related, like 'I could lose my job, my home, and my family'.


As younger adults, of course we were aware of death, but as something that could come out of the blue in the form of a traffic accident, an airline crash, an epidemic, a murder, and as something that happened to others, not us. Which is why it's difficult to sell insurance to the under 40s.


'Who would fardels bear . . . But that the dread of something after death . . . puzzles the will?' (Shakespeare: Hamlet)


But from our late 70s onwards many of us find life increasingly wearisome as it shrinks before our very eyes (though vision may be a part of the problem) and yet we are 'feared of dying' because except for a very few, we don't know where we're going, how painful it will be getting there, how it will affect the dear ones we leave behind, and what will happen to our earthly assets now we no longer have control over them.


Which reminds me of the tale of the two Aberdonians. 'Have ye heard aboot McTavish?' the one says, 'when he died he left more than a million.' 'He didna leave it', says the other grimly, 'he was taken away frae it.'
Death may not be the only fear as we slide, unwillingly yet inevitably, into our dotage. Many of us will have fears for the future of those we leave behind. But I'll deal with this a little later.


Perhaps the most intractable element in the fear of dying is that so often death in old age is accompanied by helplessness. In our final years, unless we're removed by something instantaneous like a heart attack or a stroke, we're increasingly in the hands of others as to the manner and even the timing of our end.


'The native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought'. (Hamlet)


How many of us, I wonder, wish they had faced up to death when they still had the mental and physical ability to plan and execute it. Why didn't they? Because as long as you have your marbles and your mobility, you don't want to die.


I can't help admiring, though I can't share, those with a strong belief in an afterlife. For them, dying opens the door to a perfect existence, free from all the dross and pain of the earthly one. Or those who believe they will return to the earthly life in a series of iterations until they have earned the right not to do so any more.I knew someone once who believed passionately that after death she would meet up with all her friends and relations – even her dogs. To my mind the flaw in her belief was that were it true she would therefore also meet her enemies and those she had disliked in life. Perhaps, though, she didn't have any enemies.


Having no such beliefs, I still find myself not fearing the fact of dying. I can say this with some honesty, having been diagnosed with cancer. My immediate reaction was to reject any treatment and to let the process take its course. I allowed myself to be persuaded by my family to have it removed, but ever since have felt ashamed that I didn't stick to my first inclination. Of course, as a diabetic, I'm fortunate to have the means to end it all when I feel the time is right. I'm very aware, though, that it takes wisdom – and courage – of the highest order to accept that the time IS right, and when, not if, it comes to that I only hope I shall be able to summon enough of both.

Why would anyone want to live longer in a world that is so foreign to the one we grew up and matured in?


I am lucky – very lucky – to have reached and spent most of my adult life in what I now see as a golden age. One where, on the surface at least, society seemed stable and life predictable. Though I appreciated that for nearly all of it there was a 'Cold War', it didn't trouble me much. From the educational point of view, I was, in today's jargon, 'advantaged', although I worked and played hard in a typical grammar school and, as a result, got a place at an Oxford college. There I was taught to apply critical thinking, to challenge what seemed to be flawed or illogical, and to be prepared, but politely, to argue an alternative. My tutors did not expect me to swallow whole what they said and to regurgitate it when it came to exam time. That education has served me for the rest of my life.


I shudder at the possibility that science will extend life beyond the 'four score years and ten' we expect now. I hold that this ignores the psychological impact of growing older . . . the disgust with the way the world is now, with those who run it, with those who would like to run it, and with those who batten on it like swollen ticks – whether the 'fat cats' of industry or the grossly overpaid and overvalued celebrities of one kind or another.


Which brings me to the fear for the very elderly other than of death. The fear for the young, perhaps one's grand- or even great-grandchildren and the world they will live in as adults. Of course, the fear is perhaps peculiar to those who grew up and matured in an immediately post WW2 Britain. Others, whose different world is rapidly arriving today are unlikely to share such a concern.


I fear for my descendants in a Britain in which people are stigmatised if they are white and better-off, and criminalised if they challenge the accepted wisdom in any open fashion. A Britain that is highly likely before long to be governed by Marxists or Islamists, voted once and once only into power through the growing proportion of relatively recent immigrants. Where Britain's traditional culture, past history, and accomplishments are held in scorn. Where the trashy and meretricious is commended as long as it is seen to be aligned with the socio-political environment. Where it will be a no-no to inherit assets no matter how hard and honestly the donor worked to generate them. It's not at all surprising that the over 60s contributed heavily to the vote to leave the EU – and why this wasting asset tends to vote Conservative, if only for fear of something even worse.


And yet! I appreciate that my fear comes from anticipating a world I would not want to live in. But I'm not going to be around in it much longer. Today's young, having grown up in an entirely different world will almost certainly not share my antipathy for it, nor should I expect them to.


My last blog on this subject
Next time I'll consider 'a dignified end'. Where do most elderly people end up in the immediate period before they 'shuffle off this mortal coil'? To what extent has the business of disposal of the remains of the old become just that – a business? And what happens as the number of the dead and almost dead increases with the surge in population we see now? Where are we going to put them all? And how does all this make us oldies feel?

My 8th blog about growing old....