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Passive Ageing


    ‘It could be the biggest political bombshell of the decade,’ says Professor Knutsford. ‘It will put GM foods into the shade. It will overshadow AIDS. It might even make us forget all about the war against North Korea.’
         But there isn't going to be a war against North Korea, is there?
         ‘Maybe, maybe not,’ says Professor Knutsford evasively. ‘But whether it comes or not, it will almost certainly be overshadowed by this new phenomenon that I have discovered. The phenomenon I call “passive ageing”.’
         And there we have it.
         Just as smokers affect the people around them with passive smoking, it seems that in the very same way old people can cause symptoms of old age to appear in the people round them, however young they are.
         Professor Knutsford feels he has enough evidence to show that ageing not only affects old people themselves but the people who have to mix with them, look after them and live with them.
         ‘We've done surveys of people who see a lot of old people on a daily basis, and we find that their living patterns tend to change under the influence of old age round them. Not only old people tend to talk louder, and slower, but also people who mix with them. They tend to eat slower and less. They also dribble slightly more than the average. The inference is inescapable. Passive ageing exists.’
         But . . .
         ‘We know it exists at the other end of the scale. We know that young mothers are affected by passive juvenility. Watch a young mother. See her talk to her baby. Does she talk normal English ? She does not. She talks baby English. She says: “Who's a lovely babykins then? Who wants some more milk? Coochy coochy coo.” If she talked like this in normal life, she'd be arrested. But we accept that in a baby's presence a mother is infantilised. Similarly, passive senility makes people - well, a bit dozy, at the very least.’
         Does he have any evidence for this?
         ‘Evidence ? I've got better than that! I've got a five-part television series coming out over Christmas to prove it! If that's not evidence, I don't know what it is. One of my programmes, incidentally, takes a long and hard look at Christmas time itself, for that is the time of year when we see more of our old folk than any other time. And Christmas is also the time when we BEHAVE more like old people - falling asleep in front of the telly, doing less to help around the house, losing things, forgetting things . . . What happens to us at Christmas time is the effect of passive ageing . . . What else could it be?’
         Well. . .  couldn't it be the effect of Christmas itself ?
         ‘Of course, the traditional image of old age is quite different.’ says Knutsford, ignoring the question as most old people do. ‘Traditionally, we see old people as elders of the tribe, wise and experienced and mature. Alas, that is not quite what happens in real life. In real life, old people are always complaining about the young, or harking back to the good old days, or refighting the last war but one, or just simply losing their memories. Swift had the right idea. Do you remember that in one of his journeys Gulliver goes to a country where he learns that people are immortal? How happy they must be! he says. And how much you must learn from them! And then he encounters the reality, which is a shuffling group of toothless, mindless people, all praying for death as a release.’
         Yes, but . . .
         ‘We have a rapidly ageing population. There are more and more old people, proportionately. No wonder young people are started to be affected by all these oldies and behave more like them.’
         Do they?
         ‘Of course they do ! I increasingly hear young people hankering after the old days. Young people take lots of chemical substances to keep going, exactly like old people. Young people's favourite TV programmes are based on ageing experiences . . . ‘
         Like what?
         ‘Big Brother, notably. What no-one ever noticed about Big Brother was that it was an exact parallel of life in an old folk's home. Arguments over who had what space, who had moved whose possessions, whose turn it was to do something, jealousy, back-biting. . .  in Big Brother they were all young people behaving like old people. And I am the only one to have realised it. . .’
          Starting in two weeks time on BBC-14: Professor Ivor Knutsford's dynamite new series, "Watch out! there's an Oldie about !"

The Independent Wed Dec 3 2003

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© Caroline Kington
© Caroline Kington