UNTIL recently the world- or this corner of it-was an indisputably ageist place. The old were either benign grandparents or burdensome Alzahaimer sufferers, Orthopaedic boots, walking frames and Horlicks were their proper domain. But then it all began to change. The image of ageing became rejuvenated. Post-menopausal you might be, but post-aerobics? Never. Increasingly, old people are depicted not as dentured cronies but as leotarded achievers. But ageism hasn't gone away; it's had a face-lift.
If old people are now less likely to be invariably portrayed as passive victims, the new stereotype has stepped in smartly to take its place. Now the increasingly popular visual images of the old are on safari climbing mountains; they effortlessly lap Olympic-seized pools, run marathons, complete Open University degrees, master Swahili.
At first, the new images seemed refreshing and liberating. It was a relief to know that you didn't have to swap denim for crimplene -when the free bus pass arrived. The threshold of "old" visibly shifted, and the early images of the later Joan Collins and Jane Fonda seemed to totally redefine the lifespan: at the age when our foremothers were spent and sagging, these women were lithe and sizzling, effervescing with sex.
But something wasn't right. The new way of valuing older people was to highlight their youthfulness. These older people were being celebrated for looking and acting young. Ageing had become a social crime.
In some ways this new stereotype of the "young old" is even more oppressive than the "old old" one was.
Celebrities with their Hormone Replacement Therapy smiles and marathon-running pensioners may inspire some, but to others they represent an unattainable aspiration. And like the previous stereotypes, the new ones still lump old people together as a category rather than acknowledging their differences.
There's a seemingly charming story about the American feminist Gloria Steinem. On her 50th birthday an admirer came up and told her that she didn't look 50. "This is what 50 looks like," she retorted. I used to like that story until it struck me that she was wrong: no, this is what some 50-year-olds look like.
Those who've had materially or emotionally harder lives, who were widowed young or brought up kids alone, those whose genetic inheritance didn't include infinitely elastic skin or unshrinking bones, whose faces are mapped with past exertion and present fatigue, don't look like Gloria Steinem. But they shouldn't be punished for it.
The new images of ageing have brought their own ghastly truisms. “Ladies and Gentlemen, You Are Only As Old As You Feel.” They keep saying that. But what if you feel old?
If you feel old and have had enough, if life seems less inviting and more depleting, we'd rather not know.
Just as we like our disabled people smiling and exceptional (the blind mountain-climber, the deaf musician) so we want the oldies that have bags of energy, who've never felt better, who are endlessly self-regenerating and amazing for their age", not those who merely show it, (The revolution will have occurred when "you look your age" is a compliment.)
We have reached such a pitch that instead of admiring and learning from those who feel they've had enough and are ready to die, [the image of the exceptional old person has now become the role model, almost] we're forever trying to jolly them up and yank them back to life.
Look how they could be: like the American 92-year-old featured last week on ITV's 'First Tuesday" who's had 60 years of good health because, the doctors say, he's psychologically healthy. In the 1980s we were told it was our fault if we fell ill (we didn't eat properly or exercise enough); now it's our fault if we age. We lack the right attitudes or face cream.
But perhaps we shouldn't be hard on the new stereotype of ageing-it's only a response to the previous one. When everyone was portraying old people in a negative way, one antidote was to reverse the image, deny ageing, and remake the old as glamorous and athletic, even if for most old people in our society ageing is less about running a marathon and more about staff in residential homes intruding without knocking when residents are in the loo.
It's no return to the crimplene image of old age that I'm touting. Clearly we are capable of living far more fully in old age than previous stereotypes allowed.
Nor do I deny the importance of helping old people to retain their vitality and develop their creativity as long as they want. And, of course, there are the healthy old, I hope I'll be one of them. It's the preoccupation with the exceptional, those who defy their age, and our obsession with juvenescence that wants discarding. Peter Pan is not an appropriate icon for our greying times.