The psychological challenges that arrive with your 50th birthday are rarely addressed in debates about Scotland’s health. To be honest, they’d all been pulsing and fermenting away for a few years before then anyway. Many of us choose to put them in one of those wee mental boxes that psychologists tell their patients to imagine when they want to dodge bad memories and negative vibes. We then mark it with big virtual red capital letters: “NOT TO BE OPENED UNTIL YOU’RE 50.” These little red flags range from twinges in your body’s fundamental areas to framing the appropriate reply when the barber asks you how you want your hair cut.
The biggest mental and emotional challenge comes, though, when you realise that it can take up to three days for the effects of a hangover to subside. You find yourself having to think very carefully before you embark on one of the great and uncomplicated pleasures of being human: the afternoon bevvy session. Can I cancel the next day and perhaps the day after that? Can I get Bargain Hunt on catch-up? Is there enough mould-free cheese, breaded ham and white bread to see out a couple of days in the dark?
The most poignant passage I ever read on Facebook is about that day when you went out and played with your friends for the last time and didn’t know it. There is a 50-plus equivalent. One day you’ll be getting howling in the daylight and talking big with your chums, not knowing that you would never do this again. That day is fast approaching and may already have passed.
According to a recent UK-wide poll, those about to slip anchor into their sixth decade are not beset by such torments of the soul. Instead they seem to be living a life of hedonistic abandon reminiscent of the last days of the Roman empire. The travel firm Tui commissioned the survey, which found that Britain’s fiftysomethings have gym memberships, watch YouTube and shag like goats every few days. They eat out regularly, attend gigs and are devotees of Game of Thrones. When they’re not channelling their inner Caligula they grumble only about “unrepresentative clothing brands”.
Just how representative was this survey? Did they speak to anyone in Scotland? Even in our millionaire housing estates they’re not having that much fun. They certainly don’t look like it, although in some privileged neighbourhoods they have perfected a neutral look that conveys insouciant serenity for all occasions, including mid-concupiscence and watching Game of Thrones. Others less charitably inclined suggest that such a look comes with gold card beautician membership.
Perhaps, too, this sense of self-possessed tranquillity is what you get when you can afford a personal counsellor or a life coach. Perhaps they get told to put any concerns about food banks, the Brexit apocalypse and polar bears turning vegetarian with the climate crisis into a mental box that doesn’t get opened until they’re 80. By then, many of them will be beyond worrying, as they’ll either be dead or swaddled in a tartan blanket and talking about that Kenny Dalglish goal against Spain again.
The rest of us must simply find other ways of coming to an accommodation with advancing codgerdom. It’s said that humans have been fitted with a psychological device that erodes our expectations with each passing decade. This means that, instead of getting depressed at your inability to participate in night-long bacchanals, you’re actually comfortable with this and occasionally glad.
Words such as “pyjamas” and “shandy”, which you had once studiously avoided or at least camouflaged, now come naturally. Concepts such as daytime naps and celebrating cup final triumphs with an early night and the Sportscene highlights are no longer alien. That Tui survey suggested we’re going at it hammer and tongs in the bedroom. A more representative poll might find that you don’t need to do both at the same time: you can do hammer one week and tongs the next.
Nowhere was there any mention of people doing voluntary work, participating in the community or engaging in politics. It suggested that, if you had a lot of money, you could spend your way into contented old age without concerning yourself with the world around you. It was the fulfilment of HG Wells’s prophecy in The Time Machine in which he envisaged a future when the surface of the planet would be populated by a waxen image of humanity, impervious to suffering or emotion.
To combat any feelings of stress about the onset of your 50s, I’d suggest real-life coaches. These health and behaviour specialists would be funded from the community health budget and help people who torture themselves with thoughts that all their peers are preening themselves in gyms, downloading YouTube and fornicating like monkeys. It would help combat the modern-day scourge of workplace stress.
Room in your life could be made for sustainable monthly Buckfast sessions. These would be held in the local park or a picturesque graveyard, so that participants are getting a decent walk and God’s good fresh air. Non-smokers in later middle age who suffer from anxiety could be encouraged to take up smoking. This would calm them down and they’d be secure in the knowledge that at such an advanced age they’re highly unlikely to croak from the effects of it. I’d also be encouraging gyms to offer non-active memberships. These would allow people to book in and watch other people exercise without feeling guilty about it. It would be good for the soul.
• Kevin McKenna is an Observer columnist