Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Ageing well is the real reality show
How do old people put on their socks? My friend’s question was rhetorical, if rather bleak, but to Derek Jameson, 80-year-old former media mogul and TV star, it has serious import.
Jameson was once one of the most powerful men in British media. By last year, however, when he starred in the BBC’s The Young Ones (now airing on the ABC), he had the look of a man who had not touched his feet for some time, and putting on his socks had become a primary life goal.
Yet The Young Ones is not bleak. Not at all. Television cannot afford to be. “What,” asks (attractive, blonde) presenter Mariella Frostrup at the start, “if you really could think yourself young?”
This tantalising notion drives the show. Of course, it’s television. So although it bills itself as serious science, and is presided over by the Harvard psychologist and Counterclockwise author Professor Ellen Langer, The Young Ones is also part reality TV, and part propaganda.
Then again, that could be part of the experiment, which tests the placebo potential of a new anti-ageing therapy – where the sugar pill is a house.
As students – somehow studenthood is always plural – we would occasionally try to imagine how we’d live in old age. The favoured vision involved a rambling, shared, wooden house, full of books, chooks, pets, friends and possibly drugs, with libraries and verandahs, music rooms and kitchen gardens. It was a hop away from streets brimming with cafes, cinemas and bookshops. (Yes, dearly beloved, back when bookshops and cinemas existed.)
Later, when my mother was dying, I changed my mind. When she was two weeks from death the hospital chucked her out. The caring-sharing team it had built around her decided she was sick enough to die, clearly too sick to be at home but not sick enough – or perhaps not curable enough – to command a hospital bed.
I was too close to tears to argue. But who can argue with a hospital, anyway?
So began a grim wheelchair tour of various “care” establishments. First was Paradise Waters, or similar, a funereal hostelry so new that half of it was still under wraps. The pink-faced manager clicked across the marble floor towards us, adjusting his cufflinks, cementing his smile into place, smoothing his trouser creases. For only a couple of thousand dollars a week he offered my mother a small plastinated room, with a view of other small plastinated rooms ready for the yet-to-crumble. All this, and staff paid to treat her like an underachieving four-year-old.
I saw then that, however thrilling or purposeful your life to that point, you are suddenly meant to feel right at home in a world that reeks of plastic carpet, boiled cabbage and stale body fluids, a world of neat lawns, false smiles and managed atmospheric denial in which you feel already embalmed, or soon wish you were.
So I decided my young-person’s vision of ageing was just that; silly and unrealistic. Old people, I saw, were undercover heroes, trudging out across the frozen wastes, not a map or sled-dog in sight, increasingly ill-equipped for the terrors that lie ahead. Captain Oateses all.
But The Young Ones sets out to prove me wrong; to prove my youthful vision truer than I thought.
Here is the scenario. Take six ageing celebrities, two of whom have had strokes and all of whom suffer various physical and mental debilities. Place them – for a week, together – in a house that replicates the environments of their heydays. Test them at the start and the end, measuring any changes in mental and physical capacity.
The house, of course, is a TV producer’s dream, full of psychedelic wallpapers, wild reproduction furniture and authentic product placement. (Vegemite figures strongly, which is kind of weird.)
Several of the celebs deny ever having lived in a house remotely like it – certainly I have never seen anything similar – but the scientist-stylists have been at pains to reproduce each person’s bedroom from the era, candlewick and all, from old photos.
Within a staggeringly short space of time – just a day or two in many cases – all six celebrities are showing improved cognitive capacity, physical strength, balance, energy and, especially, mood.
The actress Liz Smith, who at 88 has had three immobilising strokes, gladly dumps a stick. Dickie Bird, the great Yorkshire umpire who has become solitary and depressed, is again the life of the party, laughing until the tears roll.
Kenneth Kendall, the BBC’s first TV newsreader, now 85, is no longer terrified of falling. And Jameson, with his endearingly dreadful teeth, finally gets his left sock past his toes.
The secret, according to the show, and to Ellen Langer’s 1979 counterclockwise experiment which it roughly replicates, is to cue people into not just recalling but re-inhabiting their old minds, reminding themselves of the potent people they once were, and watching the body follow suit.
This is largely the opposite design philosophy of most nursing homes and hospices today.
Langer is adamant that it is not just the week-long socialising that does the trick, even enhanced by half-day forays into acting, choreography, caring for dogs or whatever each individual most loved. For her, the environment itself is a critical memento (and it’s just lucky, I guess, that the ’70s were so fabulously telegenic). It is about taking control, maintaining charge of your own life.
This is use-it-or-lose-it stuff, and it’s no surprise, given that Langer has argued against “learned helplessness” for decades.
But these are very particular individuals; gregarious, extroverted, accustomed to success. Control is not all they had or all that the experiment restores to them. There was also power – efficacy, if you prefer – over others. Power to mould lives other than their own. And that, as my mother would say, is good for what you’ve got.
So although the implications of the experiment are immense, there is a question about whether it can be replicated for people of more modest peaks, people with far smaller energy nest eggs to rediscover. People like my mum, for whom the frustration of dying was more about things unachieved than power lost.
So, is “thinking yourself young” science or just television? I guess, in an ageing world, we’ll find out. As 76-year-old screen siren Sylvia Syms notes, “This is the future. Get used to it!”
Personally, I’m back to Plan A, my youthful vision of age. Alan Arkin’s louche grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine remains my role model of choice. I took way too few drugs in my youth. Now I’m looking forward to the wild hippie excesses of my dotage.
ILLUSTRATION: EDD ARAGON