Old bodies are kept unseen and often out of the picture in U.K. society. Perhaps it’s the disturbing unease, and sometimes disgust, that the young and the middle aged feel about the actual realities of seeing live, ageing bodies instead of the often idealised bodies of the young. That’s why I want to challenge the invisibility of ageing bodies through looking closely at my own, ageing male body.
At 77 I have a bruised, scarred ageing body. Although I keep active by frequent walking, I have a fragile, medicalised body. There are now signs of ageing becoming more clearly visible in the texture of my skin. On my arms my skin is starting to crinkle like crepe paper. The backs of my hands reveal the thinness and occasional shininess of my skin. Blood blisters,often connected to my use of Warfarin -- an anti-coagulant -- often show as a dark ring on my arms and hands when I have accidentally knocked them against door handles or other intrusive objects.
Purplish, vein tracks, the legacies of open heart surgery in 1986, also scale down the front of my chest. These tracks still reveal the crooked incision of the surgeon’s knife. Recently I have struggled to lose weight alarmed by the threat of being told that I was a border-line case of diabetes(Type Two). As a result I have come down from over 11 stones to 9 and a half stone. So now my body is relatively slim verging on skinniness. And I have avoided having to resort to taking yet another pill to fend off diabetes. For me now in 2017, I experience old age as a strange mixture of physical change and incapacity merging with some moments of mental sharpness especially when motivated by subjects of strong, personal, emotional investment.
Constant, fluctuating change in the material bodies of ageing men like me also involves the often traumatic disruption of taken for granted, bodily norms. Examples of some of these disruptive moments in my life have been sudden flashes of breathlessness, heart-related collapses, bleeding leg ulcers that won’t heal, eye disorientations and blurrings and bowel obstructions. However, these physical crises and changes can also, sometimes open up alternative possibilities through the experiences of anxiety, pain and dislocation.These abrupt shifts can also provoke a fresh physical and mental confrontation with conventional forms of masculinity that can lead to a critical re-assessment of earlier, younger and middle-aged obsessions with winning, being on top and with work, successful careers and selfish sexualities.
In my own life history, bodily changes have also brought with them a more thoughtful,self-reflexive re-pacing, re-positioning and an erratic, dawning recognition of physical and emotional limitations over the years. As a practical result my visual impairment led to me having to give up driving a car and using public transport instead. Heart problems helped me to come off pushing and driving myself so hard in my work. Also I took up leg exercises every morning because of poor circulation. Also the mutual sharing of personal and often emotional e-mails with our ageing men’s group has helped me to come to terms with some periods of intense loneliness in old age.
Old age for many men is a place of frequent, bodily change.and linked self-critical life review and re-assessment of gender relations and traditional sexual practices instead of a sense of inevitable decay and decline. But at the moment these subtle bodily transitions and shifts remain hidden from public view and scrutiny. Without that public sharing and dialogue with other older men and women about their experiences, it’s difficult to go on learning and re-thinking in old age about who we are as men and human beings. That’s why we need to carry on challenging the invisibility of ageing men’s bodies.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Randy Barber for his help in thinking about old bodies.