‘I always treat old people just as I would normal people’

Not everyone can be as sanguine about old age as Dirk Bogarde
29 May 2013 @ 11.45 am
| Opinion

Not everyone can be as sanguine about old age as Dirk Bogarde
Not everyone can be as sanguine about old age as Dirk Bogarde
It starts when a young woman gives up her seat on the bus for you. But that’s not the only of William Dixon Smith’s age concerns

Old age always comes as a surprise. We observe it first in others, with surprise. Suddenly we notice that people we have known for years are beginning to look, well, old! Yet with us, old age recedes with the passage of time.

Old age is always ten years away, just as it was when we were children. Stealthy birthdays are so agreeably deceptive. They mark the passage of time, but imperceptibly so. The actor Dirk Bogarde celebrated his fiftieth birthday by scrutinising his fortunate face in the mirror. He found naught there but reassurance.

That, of course was a man’s mirror. A woman’s mirror is rarely so reassuring. Like that of the queen in the folk tale, a woman’s mirror is her unflattering confidante. Narcissus, it will be remembered, was a man. Still, though mirrors will not lie, they do tend to prevaricate. In order to perceive ourselves to be old, really old that is, the active participation of another is required. Otherwise we should carry the burden of youth unnoticed to the grave.

But what a disagreeable surprise it is the first time, when boarding a crowded bus, a young woman leaps to her feet, and offers you her seat. Of course, you decline with the utmost courtesy, but the damage is done.

 

Worse is to come. Friends offer to help you out of the car. Strangers rush to hold doors open for you

From childhood you had learnt, as a duty, to offer your seat to any woman; looks in this case being irrelevant. Then, without the slightest warning, the rules are changed. What was a spontaneous act of chivalry is now hedged round with uncertainty and complexity. Certainly, you can continue to offer your seat to the old and infirm, and to women of mature appearance… probably; but where to draw the line? There is this haunting, inhibiting risk of appearing ridiculous.

Worse is to come. Friends offer to help you out of the car. Strangers rush to hold doors open for you.

Fumble with your bank card, and a thoughtful assistant will snatch it from your hand to insert it helpfully in the machine for you. J says I shouldn’t climb ladders. One day, watching me put my shoes on, she remarked: “Only old people use shoe-horns”. I bridled at this, pointing out the convenience and usefulness of this simple device. “Yes,” she replied, smiling triumphantly, “but only old people use them.”

Such harrowing incidents become commonplace. Following a recent visit to the out-patients department of York Hospital, I was greeted by the specialist in that sing-song voice one tends to adopt in addressing small children. On my return, I mentioned this singularity to J. “Oh!” she exclaimed in horror, “I think that’s terrible! I always treat old people just as I would normal people.”