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Opinion | Is growing old easier for women?

Old age is hardly an easy stage to negotiate for any gender but I wonder if women have a slight edge

Michael Douglas plays the ageing protagonist in ‘The Kominsky Method’.
Michael Douglas plays the ageing protagonist in ‘The Kominsky Method’.

In a scene from the Netflix series The Kominsky Method, ageing protagonist Michael Douglas takes the slowest ever filmed leak in the men’s loo at a bar. As he struggles with his intermittent urine flow, a couple of younger men stand alongside him and finish in a jiffy. “Enjoy it while it lasts," he tells the first. “All right I get it, you got a functioning prostrate. Good for you," Douglas, who plays once famous actor turned acting coach Sandy Kominsky—urine still dribbling slowly—tells the second man.

Thus far we’ve been accustomed to viewing cinematic depictions of old age that mainly touch on themes of redemption, emptiness and new friendships. The filmgoer’s experience of old age lies somewhere between 2008’s Bucket List (two male cancer patients racing against time for some end-of-life adventure) and 2012’s Amour (a couple confronting death oh-so-gracefully courtesy Austrian genius film-maker Michael Haneke).

The Kominsky Method’s sharp focus on the messy guts of ageing masculinity, thus, comes as a bit of a shocker. Thank you for educating us about retrograde ejaculation and introducing us to the world of bad jokes about anal examinations, Netflix. The series leaves no question unanswered about the strawberry-sized gland that dominates health conversations among ageing men.

You can almost see the Vulture critic shaking her head thinking TMI (too much information) when you read her review of the show. “Many, many minutes of The Kominsky Method are devoted to the humiliating affront of his enlarged prostate," the critic for New York magazine’s culture and entertainment writes. “A truly surprising amount of time is spent on a shot with the camera pointing upward at Michael Douglas’ grimacing face, with the halting, comedically irregular sounds of small spurts of urine hitting ceramic as the primary soundtrack," she adds, about the toilet scene.

Watching The Kominsky Method actually made me wonder if growing older is a bit easier for women, at least for the privileged set who don’t have to worry about finances. It’s almost like it’s payback for all the difficulties we endure in earlier stages of life—or at least some of them. Then again, we haven’t had a menopause movie or TV series yet.

Lots of women complain about becoming “invisible" as they grow older, but I’ve seen this happen to all senior citizens. At restaurants, the wait staff routinely ignores older diners looking instead to their younger companions to place orders; in hospitals, doctors rarely address the ageing patient. “He had pneumonia you know, it didn’t affect his ability to understand what you’re saying," I once irritatedly told a doctor who was asking me a question that his senior citizen patient was better equipped to answer. When these men in white do condescend to talk directly to their elderly patients, they often enunciate each word like they are addressing a child with low comprehension skills.

Up close, old age is hardly an easy stage to negotiate for any gender. My favourite bleak Bible on the subject, Being Mortal, summarizes the experience in the heading of Chapter 2: “Things Fall Apart".

As far as biology goes, if men must combat Parkinson’s, women have their Alzheimer’s. Cancer is an equal opportunity offender though it affects different organs in men and women.

Women are more likely to suffer from the crippling pain of arthritis and the threat of falling is never far away when you’re an elderly female (one Swedish study found that 70 year-old women are at an approximately 50% greater risk of incident falls than men), but we have stronger hearts.

Men have more financial retirement security than women, but, hey, the male brain ages faster than the female brain, according to a study published in Brain Imaging And Behavior. Of course, women live longer though one recent study by the University of Exeter earlier this year showed that older men end up healthier than women.

Biologically, you could convincingly argue a case for both genders. But for those of us who believe we are more than the sum of our functioning organs, author Susan Nolen-Hoeksema reasons that women’s lives get better instead of worse as they grow older.

“Women use their mental strengths to tackle the new problems that arise as they age, such as navigating the health care system, or living on less income in retirement….women enter older age with a strong network of close relationships with people whom they trust and who want to reciprocate their empathy, patience, listening, and care. Women apply their emotional strengths to handling distress, empowering them to weather the crises and losses that come more often as we grow older," she says in Psychology Today. Read this with the usual #notallwomen rider of course.

If you apply common sense to this puzzle, the answer seems obvious. Contrast a lifetime of activity around the house. A few years ago, a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found the average Indian man spends 19 minutes a day doing household chores vs his female counterpart’s 298 minutes every day. Surely all this active time we are forced to invest early in our life exercising all the multiple muscles required to do household chores shows some dividends as we age and are restricted to our homes? I’d like to believe it does.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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