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The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, Time and Ageing

The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, Time and Ageing

by Douwe Draaisma

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With a storyteller’s gift and a scientist’s insights, Draaisma celebrates the unique pleasures of the aging memory

You cannot call to mind the name of a man you have known for 30 years. You walk into a room and forget what you came for. What is the name of that famous film you’ve watched so many times? These are common experiences, and as


With a storyteller’s gift and a scientist’s insights, Draaisma celebrates the unique pleasures of the aging memory

You cannot call to mind the name of a man you have known for 30 years. You walk into a room and forget what you came for. What is the name of that famous film you’ve watched so many times? These are common experiences, and as we grow older we tend to worry about these lapses. Is our memory failing? Is it dementia?
Douwe Draaisma, a renowned memory specialist, here focuses on memory in later life. Writing with eloquence and humor, he explains neurological phenomena without becoming lost in specialist terminology. His book is reminiscent of Oliver Sacks’s work, and not coincidentally this volume includes a long interview with Sacks, who speaks of his own memory changes as he entered his sixties. Draaisma moves smoothly from anecdote to research and back, weaving stories and science into a compelling description of the terrain of memory. He brings to light the “reminiscence effect,” just one of the unexpected pleasures of an aging memory.
The author writes reassuringly about forgetfulness and satisfyingly dismantles the stubborn myth that mental gymnastics can improve memory. He presents a convincing case in favor of the aging mind and urges us to value the nostalgia that survives as recollection, appreciate the intangible nature of past events, and take pleasure in the consolation of razor-sharp reminiscing.

Editorial Reviews

Times Higher Education Supplement - Alan Collins
"Draaisma provides an entertaining discussion . . . in a lively style and he engages with topics of considerable social and psychological importance. He does not overburden the reader with experimental work and his use of varied sources is refreshing."—Alan Collins, Times Higher Education Supplement
BBC Focus Magazine - Rita Carter
“Full of intriguing information and touching interviews, The Nostalgia Factory may help you to hear Grandpa’s rambling war stories in a different way.”—Rita Carter, BBC Focus Magazine
The Oldie - William Palmer
"[A] witty and profound book"—William Palmer, The Oldie
The Washington Post - Heller McAlpin
“For readers, the most welcome aspect of this book may be his heartening examples of the wisdom that comes with old age.”—Heller McAlpin, The Washington Post
The Sunday Herald - Lesley McDowell

‘Draaisma in The Nostalgia Factory calls this the 'reminiscence effect', but what is really appealing about his accessible and entertaining study is the enthusiasm with which he treats old age, considered so often by today’s society as a time of decay and decline.’—Lesley McDowell, The Sunday Herald
Charles Fernyhough

'One of our most perceptive writers on the stories of human memory, Douwe Draaisma has written a tender and insightful meditation on the trials and consolations of old age, memory and forgetfulness.' - Charles Fernyhough, author of Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts
Iain McGilchrist

‘Draaisma is a poet of memory, one whose knowledge is grounded in science, though he is far too wise to confuse the lab with life.  The clarity and elegance of his treatment of the subject gives continual delight.’ - Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Product Details

Yale University Press
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5.10(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.50(d)

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Copyright © 2008 Douwe Draaisma
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18286-6


The longest stage

It is no easy thing to tell a person openly that he or she is old. Other people are old, even if they happen to be contemporaries of yours. And if you say of people that they are old, then it will inevitably be because of some deficiency or failing. A person has difficulty walking, fails to follow the conversation properly, cannot stand any commotion – you can tell that person is getting old. You will never hear anyone remark: 'He said such wise things this evening; he's really beginning to get old.' There are plenty of sayings about the wisdom of age and the understanding that comes with the years, but the cold realities of everyday speech indicate that we feel being old means something is not quite right.

This ambivalent attitude to age is evident in magazines for elderly people. Even before opening them you will notice that the titles avoid any mention of old age. They are called things like Midi or Plus. On the inside pages elderly people are not altogether absent, but they do tend to be fairly young. To judge by the articles, old age (a term consistently avoided) is a period of assiduous sport and travel, of wintering in warm countries, wine-tasting, and taking courses on French Impressionism. It must be the jolliest stage of life too, since those youthful elderly people are all smiles, whether they are on a museum tour or lifting their mountain bikes onto car racks.

The advertisements tell a different story about old age. Readers can request no-obligation estimates for stair lifts ('Move house? Never! But mind you, those stairs ...'). They are encouraged to visit the optician or to book themselves in for a 'preventative scan'. Leafing through a random issue of the English magazine Saga (May 2013), for every travel advertisement inviting elderly readers to enjoy the majesty of the Norwegian fjords or the golf courses on the Isle of Man ('bring your driver'), there are two that refer to health – or, rather, its decline. They include adverts for hearing aids, vitamin and mineral supplements, walk-in baths, pain relief ('gardening made easier'), remedies for restless legs, shoes for those suffering sensitive bunions, denture problems, tinnitus, insomnia, sluggish digestion, night cramps and osteoporosis. The right-hand editorial pages radiate vitality and lust for life, reporting how the elderly are in touch with the modern day ('silver gamers are grabbing the controller') or exploring 'the last wild places'. The left-hand advertising pages offer recliner chairs and 'positional relief from aching joints'. In magazines like these the contrast is stark: senior citizens romp about on a foreign tide-line, but the free gift on offer to new subscribers is a blood-pressure monitor.

Even this story, a narrative of decline, deterioration and the loss of vitality, is told in ambiguous terms. The advertisements feature models who must be at least a generation too young for the ailments depicted. Sitting on the stair lift is a man of about forty who in real life probably takes the stairs two at a time – no wonder he is smiling. Riser-recliner chairs suggest a time of life when every seat offered is eyed sceptically with a view to whether you will ever get up from it again, but in the advert the woman sitting in the chair is perhaps in her mid-thirties. It is as if she is trying out her grandmother's chair just for fun. The discomforts of age, in other words, are associated with all kinds of things, but not with age.

Being old, visibly old, is something the reader must be spared wherever possible, even if that reader is old. Our everyday language and the way we imagine 'the third age' – to pick another of the countless euphemisms – points more to repudiation and distancing than to acceptance. It seems we have difficulty valuing old age on its own terms.

Anyone who believes that this is a phenomenon of our time or of the generations now living is mistaken. The notion of old age as a valuable phase of life, characterized by wisdom and ripeness of insight, has always been drowned out by its opposite: old age as a time of decline, sickness and insanity. In the early fourteenth century, Dante wrote of a old age as ship gradually lowering sail as it approaches harbour, a serene image of a destination and of acceptance. But that same century produced hundreds of satires, caricatures, proverbs and stories about the vanity and greed of elderly people. These were often explicit, but sometimes they could be rather more subtle, such as when virtues like moderation and generosity were symbolized by beautiful young women, and sins such as avarice and conceit by ugly old men. Young and beautiful have always been seen as a natural pair, as have old and ugly. Or old and loquacious. In one of the Greek myths, Eos, goddess of dawn, uses flattery to persuade Zeus to grant her lover Tithonus eternal life. It is a dubious gift, as Eos quickly realizes; instead of eternal life she ought to have asked for eternal youth. Now Tithonus is increasingly ancient, his gait is unsteady, and worst of all he talks her ear off. Eventually she can think of no other solution but to turn him into a cricket – and so the myth explains the endless chirruping of crickets. Historians who have studied depictions of old age in earlier times write that our notion that older people were treated with more respect in some indefinable bygone era itself goes back a very long way.

Research into the history of old age has corrected other long-established beliefs, one being that until the twentieth century, when average life expectancy was only just over forty, there were hardly any elderly people. Demographic studies demonstrate that the low average was mainly the result of shockingly high infant and child mortality. Once into adulthood, an individual had a good chance of living to be sixty or older. By the eighteenth century, in countries like Britain and France, people in their sixties made up around 10 per cent of the population. The very elderly were rare, but they were always around.

Nor is it true that 'in the past' elderly people were lovingly accepted into their children's families, where they helped to look after their grandchildren. Here demography tells a grimmer story. That same high child mortality that reduced life expectancy meant that in eighteenth-century Europe, two-thirds of people in their sixties had outlived their children. In the Greco-Roman world the proportions reflect an even harsher reality: a child of ten stood only a 50 per cent chance of having one living grandparent; by the age of twenty that figure had shrunk to less than 1 per cent. Until well into the nineteenth century, families of three generations were rare, more so than families of four generations are now. The stereotype of grandparents spoiling their grandchildren emerged only in the seventeenth century, in the well-to-do classes. Then as now, grandparents preferred to live independently, a wish that was shared by their children – if any were still alive.

In the twentieth century it gradually became normal to be old. Nowadays when someone dies at seventy we say that person died young, and death notices often include the words 'passed away unexpectedly' even when the deceased was in his or her late eighties. The rapid numerical increase in elderly and extremely elderly people has been made highly visible by an explosion in the centenarian population. At the end of 2012 the Office for National Statistics reported that there were 12,640 centenarians living in the UK. It also stated that the number of Britons reaching the age of 105 or more had nearly doubled in less than a decade: 560 women and 80 men. In the Netherlands, before 1950 there were never more than forty centenarians, yet in 1997 the 1,000 barrier was passed and today more than 700 Dutch people reach the age of a hundred every year. The mayors of the larger cities have quietly abandoned the practice of visiting every new centenarian personally. Despite this huge influx into the eleventh decade, only slightly more than half those who reach 100 will succeed in reaching the age of 101, and of those 101-year-olds, half will have celebrated their final birthday, and so on. The outer edge of the mortality statistics is a perilous place.

In 1900, anyone who had lived for a century had reached double the average life expectancy. Now in the West that average is itself approaching eighty, for women at any rate. Above the age of seventy all those risk factors that can hasten your end – an unhealthy lifestyle, too much alcohol, smoking, obesity – begin to fall away in comparison to that one powerful factor that you can do so reassuringly little about: being male. Among centenarians there are six times as many women as men.

Old age is the longest life stage even for those who do not live to be ninety or a hundred. Baby, infant, toddler, child, adolescent, young adult – you are none of these things for long. If your life takes the course that actuaries have plotted out, you will be old for longer than you were ever young.

In the western world at this point in history, our quarter-century (or more) of old age is a time of paradoxes. Elderly people have never been so healthy. Many illnesses that meant certain death half a century ago can now be cured or even prevented, and many ailments can be eased by drugs or prostheses. 'Old' bodies are better preserved than ever, by a varied diet and by proper care and hygiene. A person of seventy generally looks younger than a sixty-year-old would have done in the generation of his or her grandparents, or than someone who has reached sixty in a part of the world where conditions are more taxing. Yet there has never been an era in which older people have made more effort, with cosmetics or in some cases even surgery, to look as young as possible.

A second paradox has to do with work and pensions. Whether and when a person retired from work was for centuries a personal matter, a decision that depended on health, family circumstances and financial resources. Pensions and annuities started to become available towards the end of the nineteenth century, but even then only gradually, and only for certain occupational groups. State old-age pensions became a universal right no earlier than the mid-twentieth century in most Western countries. In the 1950s and 1960s they were paid out to people who had worked for many years, perhaps from the age of twelve or thirteen, in jobs that took a significant toll on their bodies. Those reaching pensionable age in recent years, born in the 1940s, started work later, usually in much less physically demanding jobs. For the baby boomers now beginning to draw their pensions it is true to say that the distance from the start to the end of a working life has never been so short. The paradox here is that the 'standard' retirement age (sixty-five in many Western countries) introduced a clear boundary precisely at a time when there was less reason for it than ever. Moreover, it represents not just a right but a duty: in many countries most people are forced to leave work on reaching 'retirement age'. There is no justification at all for this sudden, blanket withdrawal from the process of earning a living. Physically demanding jobs have been made far easier by machinery, and the decline of mental faculties in old age is a slow and gradual process that certainly does not warrant a fixed and compulsory cut-off point. Perhaps the credit crunch and dwindling pension funds will help to reverse this situation. The ONS reported that by the end of 2012 nearly a million pensioners were still – or again – working. In the UK, as elsewhere, dropping annuities may force us to rethink the compulsory nature of retirement legislation.

Lastly there is the paradox that in many lives 'old' is the longest epoch, with the fewest gradations within it. Sometimes we distinguish between young and old senior citizens (another euphemism), or between the third and fourth age, but generally we make no attempt to identify distinct phases and stages. Here too language discloses something about our general image of old age: it is a static period, without progress or variation, in which life comes to a standstill.

No matter how many vigorous, healthy and active elderly people we see around us, in developing a perspective on old age we still adhere quite closely to the image drawn or painted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the 'Staircase of Life' or 'Ages of Man'. For symmetry's sake the ages of man were depicted on this staircase as adding up to an even number of years, usually eighty or a hundred, so that the forty-or fifty-year-old would stand at the top. Sometimes the steps were inscribed with mottos or religious poetry, sometimes each age had its own symbolic creature: the eagle and the bull for those aged twenty and thirty, the lion or the sly fox at fifty, the domestic dog for the seventy-year-old and at eighty a cat snoozing in front of the fire. Old age was sometimes symbolized by an owl, but more frequently by a goose or a donkey.

The 'Ages of Man' painted by an anonymous master in about 1680 leaves no room for doubt about how old age was perceived at that time. All the light has been reserved for the first half of life. The colourful flags, plumes, cloaks and sashes give the years of ascent a look of joy that is lacking on the right. On the left side even the angel is more festively clad. No light shines on the years of descent. After the age of fifty we feel our way to our end through the half-darkness, drably dressed.

A second contrast lies in the fact that the first half of life is depicted as a time of change and variety. The young man of twenty with a hawk on his wrist no longer resembles the boy of ten astride his goat; the forty-year-old is absorbed in soldiering and is no longer the bon vivant he was at thirty, while the man of fifty, an admonishing finger raised, has new responsibilities as well. Each decade has a character of its own. The descent, by contrast, is of depressing uniformity. All that distinguishes the eighty-year-old from the seventy-year-old is a more pronounced stoop. There is increasing effort and infirmity, walking sticks are needed and eventually crutches, but aside from that an old man is simply an old man, whether aged sixty, seventy, eighty or ninety. Only the centenarian does something novel: he dies.

There is a detail one might easily overlook. The infant, the boy, the young man, the adult, the mature fifty-year-old: they all have their eyes fixed on the world. Viewing the picture, we have the feeling they are answering our gaze; they look back at us, there is contact, they still belong with us in our world. The old men have turned away. They make their descent absorbed in themselves, as if expecting nothing more of life or of company. The man of thirty and the man of seventy are in symmetrical positions in the painting, but the contrast could not be greater. Thirty stands proudly hand on hip, eager to be seen; seventy seems to want nothing more than to be allowed to continue his arduous descent quietly and unnoticed. His gait speaks of deficit and loss. He requires no spectators.

Elderly people today have no lack of an audience – in fact, almost the opposite. Help rushes from all sides. There is great concern for their welfare. It helps that old and poor are no longer two sides of the same coin, as they were for so long. Until the middle of the twentieth century, leaving your job meant the loss of all income, which in the absence of considerable personal assets led to dependence on family, charity or austere public provision. Now elderly people have their own incomes and often savings on top. They have become players in a market.

In this respect too, magazines aimed at the elderly are notable for their ambiguity. On the one hand there is a recognition that old age is a time of increasing infirmity. The second largest category of advertisements capitalizes on this, since an impressive amount of technology has been developed to cater to the physical well-being of elderly people. An 'Ages of Man' painted in our own time would feature not sticks and crutches but sophisticated walking frames and mobility scooters. On the other hand elderly people are welcomed as players in an even larger market: the travel industry. The biggest advertising category in their magazines exhorts the elderly to go on outings, journeys, safaris, city trips, culinary excursions, weekends away, spa visits, walking holidays, art tours, cruises, and to get out and about in all kinds of other ways. Becoming less mobile therefore goes hand in hand with increased mobility. As symbols of old age the crutches, the dog, or the cat snoozing by the fire are outdated. A greater desire to travel balances out the image of the elderly looking inwards, having apparently lost interest in the world. Old people nowadays explore the distant and the exotic.

Excerpted from THE NOSTALGIA FACTORY by DOUWE DRAAISMA, Liz Waters. Copyright © 2008 Douwe Draaisma. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Douwe Draaisma is professor of history and theory of psychology, Heymans Chair, University of Groningen, and author of Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older. He lives in Groningen, The Netherlands.

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