I am proud of my “salt and pepper” hair. It is a bit more grey everyday that passes, a bit saltier. I like how it looks, it is part of who I am, but I have to admit that I also like it as an act of defiance (admittedly a very mild one) against the pressure that is put on people, and women in particular, to look younger than they are. I also have an instinctive dislike for things that are fake, like particleboard covered in wood veneer and faux leather. They seem dishonest to me, trying to look like what they are not. In the same way, colouring my hair to cover my grey hair would feel dishonest too. Of course, I do not think that people who colour their hair are dishonest, it is just that this is how I would feel if I did it. I also happen to believe that women can look very good with grey hair. I was pleased to see Kirsty Wark and Mary Beard sporting grey hair in Newsnight.
As someone working on economic implications of ageing, and long-term care and dementia in particular, I am very aware of the phenomenon (often called “myopia”, there is a good economic article here) that most people underestimate the probability that they will need long-term care, even at relatively old ages. This has a serious consequence, as it results on most people not making adequate provision for their possible future care needs, which can result, in countries with low levels of social protection, in people feeling that they become too much of a burden to their loved ones, or, even worse, in people not receiving the care that they need.
The explanation for this “myopia” seems to be that the brain dislikes engaging in thinking about future events that we fear. A part of me can’t help wondering whether, by trying to look younger, we aren’t contributing to making the problem worse. The more we know about the things we fear, the less scary they become. And having a plan for the worse possible case is one of the best ways I know to reduce the fear that this possible worst case will happen.
There is much more to fear about old age if we have not prepared for it.
It is not just about saving enough (or, perhaps, applying pressure to our politicians to force them to take our future seriously). It is also about keeping socially and physically active, and about understanding that even those who develop some of the conditions that we fear the most, have the potential to live well. And the more our society embraces ageing as the privilege it is and prepares for its consequences, the less reason we will have to try to hide our age. Grey hair should become a badge of pride.