Denise is afraid of getting old
Oh no, a wrinkle!
I wish I’d never read that article. It was just a stupid website, and the article was stupid, but I couldn’t forget the story of a woman who hadn’t laughed in years because she was afraid of getting wrinkles. Shit, I thought. I laugh a lot.
It was June 12, 2018. I looked in the mirror, in the knowledge that today, I would leave my teenage years behind me. It was my twentieth birthday. I took a good look at my reflection and saw the laugh wrinkles that had made their permanent home on my face: little cracks marred the once smooth skin near the corners of my eyes.
The thought came to me, unbidden: was the woman in the article right? Had decay already set in?
That was the day I started using anti-ageing creams – one in the morning, and one at night. But I couldn’t get rid of that fear of laughing. Before, I used to laugh with abandon, but now, I was constantly aware of all the muscles I used. It felt like every moment of happiness left a new scar on my face.
Deep down, I knew I was overreacting. Part of me wanted to embrace the beauty of wrinkles, to accept that ageing is a part of life, that it was all right. What’s this, I thought. Why am I so afraid? Is there something I can do to assuage my worries?
Old people are seen as having ailments and responsibilities
Fortunately, the UG has been systematically researching the concept of healthy ageing for the past fifteen years. The university is bursting with scientists who know everything about old age and ageing. One of these scientists is social psychologist Kai Epstude, who focuses on ageing and age identity.
One of my first discoveries is that there’s a name for how I’m feeling. Gerascophobia is the irrational and exaggerated fear of ageing. My case isn’t all that severe yet; it doesn’t consume my every waking hour.
So it turns out I’m not the only one who feels this way. ‘It’s because society has certain expectations of how people are supposed to age’, says Epstude. ‘Being young is seen as the equivalent of beauty, adventure, and fun. Old people are being shown as having physical ailments, responsibilities, and boring lives.’
I realise that he’s right. My Instagram feed is full of young hardbodies with flawless faces. I know all these photos have been edited, but I’m not impervious to their message: the only thing worth being is young, beautiful, and slim. On Netflix, nine out of ten shows have young people, often teenagers, saving the world. Everything is about them.
Older people are mainly portrayed as wizened old women like professor McGonagall in Harry Potter or old ladies who, while strict, are physically weak, like Barbara Mawdsley, James Bond’s boss.
I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to be considered part of the latter group.
The moment the fear overcame me also matches Epstude’s views. So-called temporal landmarks, like weddings, birthdays, and new year’s celebrations, can trigger it, he says. ‘During these milestones, we tend to look back on the year that came before. These events are also given a lot of importance. We always think we’ll be different than we were before.’
We tend to forget the positive aspects of ageing
So here I am, on June 12, 2021. I am turning twenty-three, and I’m looking back on the past year. If I’m honest, I’m a little worried. My grandmother died when she was twenty-four. Does this mean I only have one year to live? I realise I’m freaking out. I tell myself to calm down, that stress is bad for my skin.
Plus, the whole thing is nonsense. Epstude agrees. ‘We age every single day for a long time.’ Milestones don’t make a difference at all. However, I’m reminded of my ex-stepmother, who was a big fan of botox. She was fairly ‘old’; when I was six, she was in her sixties. I remembered that we celebrated her sixtieth birthday every year, because she refused to admit that she was getting older.
‘We tend to emphasise the losses of ageing’, says Epstude. ‘We forget the positive aspects, the gains. But it’s not so black and white. Ageing comes with a perceived commitment and reduction of freedom, but this is often compensated by more security and more financial stability.’
‘Besides, beauty changes as the years go by’, says organisational psychologist Susanne Scheibe, who studies lifespan development. When you’re young, everything’s about your genes, when you’re older, it’s about your charisma. ‘Do you still get excited, do you still have energy, are you open to new experiences?’
Many people also think decay sets in much sooner than it actually does. ‘In the past years this has moved from seventy to above the age of eighty’, Epstude adds.
Be that as it may, but I still don’t like the fact that every year, I’m a little bit closer to a face full of wrinkles, flabby arms, and a sagging bottom. I can’t think of anything positive about that. As for that financial security, I don’t see that happening any time soon.
So what am I supposed to do with this feeling?
Scheibe explains. She says my mild gerascophobia is nothing to be worried about. ‘Everyone is a little afraid of getting old’, she says, and that’s actually useful. ‘It motivates people to undertake short-term action. Like exercising, because they’re worried they’ll get ill.’
Fear motivates people to undertake short-term action
My bad knees prevent me from exercising too much, but I’ve been trying to cultivate a healthy lifestyle. I’ve recently started using sunscreen, I drink less alcohol, and I’ve been eating more salad instead of pizza.
But, Scheibe warns, make sure to keep your fear in check. ‘If you’re worried about your body getting worse with age, it will. Research has shown that people who expect it, actually suffer from more health issues.’
That’s worrying. Is my fear genuinely giving me wrinkles? However, it’s also motivated me to get my issues under control. But how?
Scheibe recommends I take a look at the SOC model by Freund and Balles: Selection of priorities, Optimising your skills, and Compensating loss.
It sounds very fancy, but it simply means I need to be open and let go of my prejudices. ‘Question your assumptions of elderly people’, says Scheibe. ‘Talk to them. You’ll be surprised how many positive stories they have to tell.’
A few days before my birthday, I visit my stepfather. ‘Are you afraid of getting old?’ I ask him.
He’s not afraid of dying, he says. But he is afraid of living too fast. ‘Life is so great, and there are so many things I still want to do.’
Doesn’t everyone want to get old?
He shows me a photo from twenty years ago. Four laughing friends, probably in their early thirties. ‘Two of them are dead now’, my stepfather says. ‘It’s made me realise that life doesn’t last forever.’
I can’t say the conversation has put me at ease. What about my grandfather? Unfortunately, he’s going senile. Recently, he told me his parents left him and never came back. He’s forgotten that they’ve been dead and buried for years. But he’s certainly not afraid of getting older. ‘Doesn’t everyone want to get old?’ he says, laughing.
Present and future
So much for my search for positive stories about ageing. My stepdad’s friends are dead and I can’t take anything my grandpa says seriously.
I remember Epstude’s words. Perhaps I should focus on the present and enjoy my body and mind while they last. Scheibe’s advice comes to mind: I should plan better in an effort to gain control over the future.
In the meantime, all I can do is hope that ageing isn’t all that bad.