Imagine this. If you are aged between 55 and 65 there is a reasonably strong chance that one of the major cancers is coming your way.
Perhaps, after having done quite well in life, you have already retired away from that old daily grind which used to devour so much of your focus and energy. Gardening is your greatest pleasure these days along with mindless novels about the grizzled but brilliant Norwegian detective, the one with a drink problem and a teenage daughter who still blames him for her mother’s suicide. Suddenly one day, you get a letter summonsing you to the hospital. Soon you are sitting in a consulting room so functional that it would have been a disgrace even in Soviet Russia, as the tired and emotionless doctor tells you that the problems you have been having with your throat have given rise to a cancer diagnosis. It is conclusive. She starts a review of the treatment options. Suddenly you realise that you are having one of the most important conversations of your life.
Hold this moment if you will, while we move forward to another day in your life.
The weeks of hospitalisation have been gruesome. But the chemotherapy and medication regime has been broadly successful. Though you are not talking much these days, you are able to receive friends and – we pick the word for its very strangeness – well-wishers. In the midst of this, you become aware of a new pressure in your life-thoughts, a new weight on your heart. It is as if all your friendships and intimacies have been spun round in a huge fairground tombola. The results, the prizes, are not the same anymore. For you realise that in their reaction to your illness and seriously plausible morbidity certain people, on whose affection you may well have silently depended over the years, do not love you and maybe indeed have never loved you. Equally, by virtue of exactly the same circumstance, you have discovered pools of warmth and kindness, hidden under the foliage of routine, that you did not know you owned. You need a new language to negotiate these new truths, these old realities exposed. Life is different now. New and vitally important conversations are required, indeed inevitable.
This is a story about how pivotal the successful management of language and conversation will be to this post-65 generation. Elements of a verbal highway code might usefully be identified. And, yes, there is something of a dark economics here since for some, just like Willie Nelson sings, the days will whittle down to a precious few. For others, the slowly swelling majority, decades of perhaps unexpected engagement with life lie ahead. And some of the edgiest, most value-bearing discourses in one’s whole earthbound existence are sure to take place just as the icy water of decrepitude has begun or is about to tingle your toes.
Is there an attitude, an etiquette, a skillset we should therefore be fashioning here?
Well, we can start with this thought. In the age of KonMari, it is as prudent to de-clutter our speech just as it is to bin those fantastic undergraduate essays held back from your early twenties along with the stenched-out sleeping-bags piled beneath them in the loft. Old men forget, as Shakespeare says, ie forget how boring they can unpromptedly be; forget that repetition is not a form of off-the-shelf creativity; forget that if an old joke is told and nobody laughs then it is not a joke anymore.
Many of us would not visit the doctor wearing a faded Who Shot JR? t-shirt or a pair of badly blotched allotment-gloves. Why would we visit uttering tired things, lazy evasions, denuded words? The very best advice about how to drive one’s cognitive edge right through any waft of senescence invariably includes a recommendation to learn a foreign language. Our story here : why not learn your own, learn to how ride it, learn how to make it keep you from harm?
Too often the wrinklies de nos jours might act like the world owes us a hearing. Oh, we have had so much life; so much experience; so much accomplishment. We should not really have to mount an effort to be understood. We should be able to amble and lisp till the cows come home and fall asleep with the boredom.
Not for the first time, the Rinkli Funsta proposition is that every septuagenarian will have an audience only if he / she deserves one. English (if that is your verbal tool) is just like IT; it’s a continuous invitation to learn new systems, upgrade denatured skills, make every bit of communication count.
After all, word-usage is how you measure your personality into all important situations : online / offline, personal / public, funny / serious, epic / call-centre.
Think of the multiple moments of revelation which lie ahead – say, between the years of 70 and 80:
Arguing for a divorce? Inviting a new grey partner on holiday to the windy Azores (your personal favourite)?
Discussing first-time wrinkle-removal with the cheery, cut-price Nip/Tuck people in your town?
Telling your fortysomething kid that he is not to sleep in your garage any longer or leave his gouaches, rotting symbols of his incompetence, in your attic?
Insisting to your regular GP that he is, despite his hurt objections, just not delivering for you anymore and that you are moving to a new practice?
Pitching the new cake business idea to your old friend, the sometime marketing director whom you will need to dominate if the project is to fly?
Briefing the uncaring provincial solicitor about your living will?
Lifting the badly bruised heart of your lonely dying friend, the old one from college, the one you always only half-liked?
Demanding that your hospital consultant explains the treatment regime, as projected for you, for the seventh time – or seventeenth – until you understand it?
Delivering the Maid of Honour’s speech at your much loved but deeply irritating step-daughter’s gay wedding reception?
Sacking the gardener – a wise old fruit you have known since you were a boy – on the grounds that he is and has always been complete crap at his job?
Telling the old friend that you love him without putting tears on his beautiful face?
Now, we all may have noticed that it has been the business of classic literature – as well as that of well-meaning and widespread cultural presumption – to want old age to reconcile itself with life’s impurity.
For instance, the audience is meant to be pleased and relieved when Prospero, his enemies forgiven and released from his spells, declares that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance”. Och, what had been a fun revenge fantasy now turns into a duff group hug. We started off with The Terminator and end up with Mary Poppins. With the tempest abating, a care home in Milan surely beckons for the elderly parties, rivals no more – while the young lovelies, Ferdinand and Miranda, will be getting a one-bedroom apartment, starting a family and thus affirming, once more, that love conquers all.
Well, this vision has, one might say, something of a baseless fabric. It has been natural for centuries to want old people to be calm, indeed to be becalmed. But how practically will a 21st century Prospero adjust to thirty years of residential prosecco and pappardelle alongside Alonso and Sebastian, whose guts he will probably learn to hate again at quite an early stage? How long can reconciliation last? How stable a force will it be or ought to be? That is the question.
Every Third Age is bound to be a Book of Revelation; it will not, for millions, be free of shocking news and provocative choices along with the chance and the pressure to do something about them. And if love struggles to last, then so be it. The deals you struck with life in your sixties and in the decades before – the deals which you thought were final and binding and good – may not weather the subsequent decades well.
Meanwhile, my septuagenarian friend, the world gets ever more skilled at talking to people like you. Doctors, for instance, can study theories of “positional bargaining” to help them get through conversations with the old and the ill and the nervy. Quite understandably, our medical systems are acutely aware that patient conversations carry risk; the doctor has to pick her words with caution, perhaps with necessarily constrained sensitivity. The Third Age patient should adopt exactly the same level of professionalism and precision.
To mind your language is to manage ageing. This is the world of 21st century silver-speak.
More to follow.