The ageing body

We spoke to people about what it feels like to be ageing. In addition to their self-perception and identity (see Self-perceptions of ageing), the most prominent issues people talked about were the changes in their body, such as physical fitness and aches and pains (see also Body image, sex and dating and Transport and mobility). It was not always easy for participants to distinguish the physical experience of ageing from other chronic conditions they lived with. Several people pointed out they did not mind getting old, but did not want the illness that was associated with old age, and others felt they were healthy despite having numerous health issues (see Health conditions).

Denis talks about the difference between chronic disease, pain and the body wearing out with age.

Elaine M would like to be older without being sick.

It is the illness rather than the ageing process that has been a problem for Brian H.

One of the biggest drawbacks of ageing was the reduced capacity to do things. People talked about walking slower, no longer being able to drive (see Transport and mobility), play a musical instrument, travel, garden, lift things, shower and dress themselves.

Tonia realised around the age of 70 that she could not do half the things she used to. Her husband Michael started to feel old at the age of 77.

Brian H cannot lift things because of a hernia but hates to ask anyone for help.

Fred used to love walking and describes the frustration he feels not being able to do the things he used to.

In contrast to many people’s experience of reduced physical capacity with age, some people said they had not experienced any restrictions because of their age and consequently did not feel old (see Self-perceptions of ageing: Olga). Other people described not being able to achieve as much in a day, usually in terms of work. This was of particular concern for people who had not yet retired or were used to working long hours.

Chris used to bring work home to do at night but now finds he is too tired. He has also realised he only has a short time left for adventurous travel.

Maree worked as a cleaner and used to be very active. It now takes her a lot longer to get things done.

People likened the physical experience of ageing to a gradual slowing down. Some people said this occurred at 60, 70 or 75, and for others it was not until they were well into their 80s. For Austin, slowing down physically has meant he can nurture his intellectual side. Whereas Shirley has slowed down after her strokes (see Health conditions), which meant giving up bushwalks and travel. Helen B pointed out that this need to slow down could be nature’s way of taking care of you as you age.

Getting older has been a gradual process of slowing down for Helen W, which she noticed in her mid 70s.

Helen B does not have the desire to move at such a fast pace and thinks it could be nature’s way of taking care of you.

People said they got tired much more easily than when they were younger. At the age of 79, Brian X said “I have a nanna nap now. I didn’t do that when I was in my 60s”. Other people said they lacked energy, became tired more easily cleaning the house, slept in for the first time in their lives, or did less but still felt tired.

Nora lee finds she does not have as much energy as she did in her 30s and 40s and often has an afternoon nap.

Several people pointed out their loss of fitness and that they were no longer able to run. Not being able to play sport was a concern for some men, particularly if they used to play a lot of sport their whole life. People were, however, very resilient and often found other interests they were more capable of (see Interests and activities).

When Charles had to give up squash at the age of 75 he became interested in CB radio, and went on to provide radio communication for organised sport.

Brian X has found his body is winding down with age but mentally he is still sharp.

Robin used to play soccer and run half marathons but now finds running painful. He has taken up cycling, but after an accident now realises his reaction time is getting slower.

Older participants or those who were frail were more likely to talk about their fear of falls and how important it was to prevent them. Several people had suffered lots of falls which had frightened them and in some cases resulted in hospitalisation and broken bones, which took a long time to heal. The preventive measures people took to avoid falls included taking care in wet areas, on stairs and uneven surfaces; having a walking frame; modifying their home to include a ramp or rails; and generally being more careful.

Earl lives alone and is worried about falling over and not being able to get up. He does not want to be a burden on anyone should he break an arm or leg.

Helen W is more careful after falling off a ladder.

For most participants the negative aspects of ageing were the effects on the body, which were experienced as reduced capacity to do things and specific illness conditions (see Health conditions). People did not, however, let this incapacity define them. Several people made the distinction between their mind and their body and decided to focus on the positive aspects of their life.

Kaye’s body lets her down but her mind flies.

At 85 Dot started to feel the physical aspects of ageing much more, but feels she can still control her outlook on life.

If it were not for the physical deterioration and losing words, Katherine would not mind getting old.