I visited my friend’s house recently. We laughed together, dined together (couscous salad – her favourite) and had our quarterly catch up. Jane*, my friend, is 72 years old. I think of her as a close friend even though she is old enough to be my grandmother. Put simply, I have all the time in the world for her and her friendship is invaluable to me.
When I mention this around other people my own age, I am often met with smirks and obvious confusion, a slick air of ageism filling the room. It’s not the norm to be friends with people years ahead of you; but I really believe that there is something incredibly special and fulfilling about intergenerational friendships, the sharing of time with someone who existed in a different age entirely, an experience that cannot be found among similar-aged friends.
It goes against everything we’re taught. After all, social media allows us to connect with individuals we perceive to be just like us at the tap of a button or swipe of a finger. My daily life is comprised of hypothetical plans spilling into tomorrow, next week, then next year, never to be fulfilled. I make countless fleeting ‘connections’ with people I’ll possibly never see again and have no real communication with except for a few sporadic replies; and the rare meetings that do happen are broken up by pings of notifications.
“I’ve found that people don’t often expect themselves to have much in common with older generations. In fact, it’s obvious to me that the elderly are often disregarded entirely”
Rather than succumbing to a pastiche of individuals who are a blueprint of myself (but not always great friends), I’ve come to find that stepping outside of my usual friendship expectations – especially when it comes to age – has been life changing.
I’ve also found that people don’t often expect themselves to have much in common with older generations. In fact, it’s obvious to me that the elderly are often disregarded entirely, seen as easy to ignore or a problem to fix. Ageing is perpetually demonised in the West, the ugly hag that shadows behind us. Adverts speed across our screens promoting products and treatments that promise anti-aging effects, subconsciously solidifying the message that it’s simply not okay to be old.
Additionally, the ageing population are most prone to chronic loneliness, intensifying since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chronic loneliness is linked to a decline in both mental and physical health and an increase in various serious long-term health conditions such as strokes, heart disease and dementia. At times, it is so easy to forget that one day we will be elderly ourselves – and age does not and should not solely define us.
“My time with Jane has slowly diminished my dread, urging me to realise that life really can be beautiful, fulfilling, and exciting at any age.”
Jane carries with her a life of wisdom that I have not yet had the time to experience. Jane herself is familiar with the heartbreaks, the rejections, the grief, and the joy that I will inevitably experience throughout my life, and I feel a sense of trust that I seldom encounter with others my age.
Personally, having experienced a perpetual and paralysing fear of growing old, my time with Jane has slowly diminished my dread, urging me to realise that life really can be beautiful, fulfilling, and exciting at any age. During a particularly existential period of mine, I asked Jane about her feelings towards dying. She told me she holds no fear toward it anymore; instead has come to accept it as an inevitability.
She also reassured me that she felt the same at my age, a time when death often feels like a distant nightmare, and life feels invincible. That night, I started to feel hopeful that one day, I too, will see death not in halting fear but accepting neutrality – and I realised how much she helps me come to accept the more difficult aspects of life such as grief, sadness and pain.
“Her admirable term in politics, as well as being a single mother during a time where little support was offered are examples of her resilience”
Jane also frequently pushes me to critically analyse my perspective – and I find a huge amount of solace in sharing time with someone who has been there and done that. Jane is a dedicated socialist and ex-MP, her time in parliament during the 1990’s is my favourite life era to hear her reminisce on. She may be only 4’10” (and I often joke with her that perhaps she is the only person in the world that can make me feel tall), but her presence is huge.
She is passionate, stubborn, and intellectual. Her admirable term in politics, as well as being a single mother during a time where little support was offered are examples of her resilience, strengthening my deep respect for her. As a woman, I look up to Jane’s strength and endurance. Her battle against the patriarchy throughout her life is commendable and a reason for me to keep fighting for feminism. She’s honest and true, never trying to impress and an effervescent encyclopaedia of knowledge that I love to explore.
For Jane, she describes a rejuvenated sense of vitality and passion. A sense of exuberance and nostalgia over her own youth, which she expresses feels refreshing compared to the connection with peers in her generation. Mark Vernon, author of The Meaning of Friendships expresses this perfectly, “elder wisdom can be exchanged for youthful energy, fresh eyes for experienced thoughtfulness.”
“The more we open ourselves up to individuals who differ to us, the more our world opens around us”
I feel this – yet Jane is often curious of the latest prevailing trends among the millennial generation – a route for her to understand modern day culture and political changes that she may not have otherwise accessed. She often expresses her gratitude for how this has improved her relationship with her grandchildren.
Sometimes, during particularly melancholic moments, I contemplate whether a breakdown of the ageist segregation could be a catalyst for social cohesion and community. Could this help to mend a society that is so politically and socially divided by opening dialogue and compassion that may otherwise not exist? Perhaps it may help us empathise and express understanding toward those who diverge from us.
If, as the classic aphorism goes, we could put our differences aside for a moment, our lives would enrichen. The more we open ourselves up to individuals who differ to us, the more our world opens around us. Jane will forever be a part of my life, and I celebrate our differences. Our friendship is a truly beautiful thing.
*Name has been changed
Gail Hanom El-Halaby currently resides in Bristol. She works full-time in the field of gender equality and is studying a part-time Master’s at the London School of Economics in Media & Communications.
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