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Coming of (Old) Age

Joining the AARP sounds like a hoot compared with getting older in years past.

In the good old days, it wasn’t so good to be old. Granted, some ancient traditions urge us to venerate the  elderly. The Bible, for instance, commands us to “stand up before the gray-headed,” which is good news for Anderson Cooper and Lady Gaga.

But in practice, disdain for senior citizens was more common than respect. The Greek philosopher Aristotle was a notorious  elder  basher. According to the book Old Age in the Roman World, Aristotle  described senior citizens as “overly pessimistic, distrustful, malicious, suspicious, and small-minded.” (Aristotle lived to be 62, so he presumably was only mildly malicious at the end of his life.)

An old man was bad enough, but a woman of a certain age? Her very existence was dangerous. According to the cutting-edge science of the medieval times, women’s menstrual fluid was poisonous. Which meant that menopausal women -who supposedly retained their flow in their bodies- were walking Chernobyls. Just by existing, they could “cause grass to dry up, fruit to wither on the vine, and trees to die. ... Dogs would become rabid and mirrors would crack by her mere presence,” according to A History of Old Age, edited by Pat Thane.

Old age was not a time of relaxation and canasta. In 19th-century England, old people didn’t get to retire (well, at least old folks who weren’t aristocrats). Many were put in workhouses, where they labored for no pay. Old people in ill-fitting striped clothing were made to crush horse bones for fertilizer or unravel old rope to recover the threads. You were essentially put in jail for outstaying your welcome.  

That’s slightly preferable to the treatment the elderly got in other cultures. They were -how to put this gently?- relieved of the burden of living. The practice even has a name: senicide. In ancient Sardinia, sons sacrificed fathers over the age of 70 to the god Cronus. In parts of India, elderly people were forced to take part in a ritual called thalaikoothal. They were given an oil bath, then encouraged to drink an excess of coconut water, which can cause kidney failure and eventual death.

So it’s understandable that our ancestors did what they could to prevent aging. There was plenty of advice here. The Greek physician Galen, for instance, suggested that old people drink donkey milk, or even human breast milk. He also recommended they go horseback riding, avoid eating cheese and snails, and take regular baths.

Knowing the old were endangered, some lawmakers tried to protect them. In ancient Delphi, for instance, if you didn’t care well for your parents, you were put in irons and imprisoned.

Occasionally, being old did come with perks, some even better than half-price movie tickets. In Venice, priests over 60 were not required to whip themselves any longer. In medieval England, men of a certain age were exempt from military service, paying taxes, and—best of all—jury duty. Even today, younger adults of a tribe in Fiji pre-chew food for old people who have lost their teeth. That’s the life!  

The article above by A.J. Jacobs appeared in the November-December 2016 issue of Mental Floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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