Mission Possible—Mature thoughts about growing older
If you are financially independent, healthy and able to take care of yourself, you can reduce age to a number that works (mostly) in your favour
Tom Cruise and Arthur Less. These days the two Caucasian men—one real, one fictional, and both older than me—are impacting my life more than you would imagine. I can identify with the description of the 49-year-old gay protagonist in the Pulitzer prize-winning book Less, whose slim shadow is still that of his younger self, but who is now like “those bronze statues in public parks that, despite one lucky knee rubbed raw by schoolchildren, discolor beautifully, until they match the trees”. The American novelist who finds himself suddenly single wonders how “so many things become a bore by middle age—philosophy, radicalism and other fast foods—but heartbreak keeps its sting?” Like me, he meets people he almost loved and fails to recognize them on the street.
Have you made it to that time of life where you realize you’ve just about crossed the halfway mark and it hits you that you have 40 more years to go? If, like me, you opted out of the rat race in your 40s, the long, meandering road ahead can look daunting. By the time I get to the end of that journey, India’s elderly population would have trebled. But it’s unlikely that we will shift our focus away from attention-grabbing millennials in the coming decades to figure out how we will make this country easier on our new seniors. And I’m speaking from a position of extreme privilege.
I’m now older than Mrs Robinson was in The Graduate if you go by the dialogue, “Benjamin, I’m twice your age”, and at that phase of life when the skin experts at chi chi stores ignore my request for a basic moisturizer and gently nudge me in the direction of their “mature skin” products.
I figure I’ve got a few more years before I need to grapple with that philosophical inside-outside conflict—what you see in the mirror (good lord, who is that?) doesn’t tally with how you feel inside (same). Until then, I have a decade of getting used to the word “aunty” and feeling overly thrilled when people say insincerely, “You haven’t changed at all.”
I observe older people to see how they are handling life and the one who stands out in recent weeks is Tom Cruise. I’m sure I want to be fitter as I grow older and after watching Mission: Impossible—Fallout, I decided it was time to take my new gym membership a little more seriously. If, at 56, Tom Cruise can still do his own stunts in the sixth film of the MI franchise, surely I can graduate from humiliating 3kg weights for shoulder exercises and beginner-level burpees where I rest my hands on a stepper instead of the floor, to something a little more respectable?
Cruise did 106 HALO (high-altitude, low-opening) jumps from a plane for three scenes at the start of the film—with a broken ankle. C’mon Priya, think of that and hold your elbow plank for 30 seconds more. Thirty-three years after that cult film made him a star, next year we’ll see Cruise in Top Gun 2 as Maverick, the flight instructor.
I find Cruise’s DIY stunts strangely inspirational, especially when contrasted with Hindi film tough guy Salman Khan’s VFX six-pack abs in Tiger Zinda Hai. Maybe I could work towards breaking the record Sangeeta Sindhi Bahl set earlier this year. At 53, she’s now the oldest Indian woman to scale Mount Everest. Fifty-three seems a little young to be the oldest at anything. India’s oldest yoga teacher is 99-year-old V. Nanammal, who still teaches and who says she has never been to a doctor.
Sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote Natural Causes about her reaction to doctors, the wellness industry and growing older. At 76, she says, she seeks help only for urgent problems, but will no longer look for problems that are undetectable to her. She will not subject herself to the “epidemic” of over-diagnosis. I’m not sure how it will turn out for me yet, but I do know that in my 70s, I want to be like that friend’s mother who swims laps, climbs stairs and does yoga.
It helps that I’m a late parent. When my eight-year-old returns from school every evening at 4pm, she assesses my energy levels with her X-ray vision. If she detects even a smudge of fatigue, her face falls to her toes. From her I’m relearning how to play hard, laugh loud, be silly and keep it simple—all skills that will serve me well as I grow older.
Apart from Cruise, Arthur Less is my new go-to guy for growing older ideas and philosophy. He’s “no champion in bed” but he kisses like someone in love. “Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you.” When someone at a party comments on the strangeness of being almost 50, Less replies: “Yes! It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.” You can’t survive growing older without a sense of humour.
Of course if you are financially independent, healthy and able to take care of yourself, you can reduce age to a number that works (mostly) in your favour. This was the year Malaysia elected 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad as its prime minister, making him the oldest leader in the world. He has been at the same weight for the last three decades. His secret to looking so energetic and fit? He says he doesn’t smoke, drink or overeat. I can manage two of those three rules but at 85, I know I’m modelling myself along the lines of a friend’s mother who drinks two whiskies—one large, one small—every evening.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.
She tweets at @priyaramani