It seems to me that I have written something on this subject before some twelve months or more ago. But of course now that I am older my perspective might have changed somewhat.
Was it Samuel Johnson who said something to the effect, “That nothing focuses the mind like a hanging!”? No doubt those whose demise is imminent are not distracted by the trite issues of everyday life.
Anyone with any introspection and with certain knowledge of their mortality will experience the same effect albeit not so dramatically. But I suppose those with spiritual awareness will always have been asking themselves the question of, “What really matters.”
As usual, I am self-indulgent in my essays. Aging is starting to become an important issue for me. My hair is falling out, I am transitioning to retirement and my grandchildren seem older than I imagine them. My son generously takes me fishing but after a few hours in the boat my bones begin to ache. I go for a geriatric jog in the mornings and I am passed by people who seem to be doing little more than walking. And one morning I am sure I was overtaken by a tortoise!
I was travelling from Brisbane City to the Airport last year. I entered the train at Roma Street Station. It was very full. Near the door there were a couple of seats that were supposed to be reserved for people with disabilities or elderly people. A lovely young woman who was sitting in one of them insisted on giving up her seat to me. It was very altruistic of her but somewhat deflating for me! It was implied that I could not stand for a few minutes while seats became available because of those departing at Central and Fortitude Valley. It was a small bruise to my ego but still a lovely gesture from someone who cared a little for her elders.
On our return from a morning walk today, my wife and I met an old fellow who lives a few doors down. He is a widower, who until recently lived with and cared for his even more elderly sister. He has had a heart condition which became aggravated last year requiring him to have surgery. He arranged for his sister to be put in a home during the operation and his recuperation. Unfortunately she died whilst he was still in hospital. He now lives alone. His main diversion is to keep birds. He has had to give most of them away now because he feels he is not up to the effort of tending to them properly. Despite all this he is not bitter but rather pragmatic about the adjustments he might now need to make to his life.
Two of the happiest people I know, are very dear old friends who have faced a great deal of tribulation in their lives including the death of a couple of their children and faced considerable health problems of their own. They have not been blessed by the best of circumstances but their aging does not seem to cause them any great angst.
Recently I wrote about the issue of dementia and how many of us will inevitably come under its thrall as we age.
So aging presents difficulties – some of the body and some of the mind.
(I can’t help but to relate to male readers the content of an article by Bettina Arndt which I read recently. She stated, I don’t know with what authority, that by the age of 50, 50% of men suffer erectile dysfunction. By the age of 60 that has increased to 60%. The inevitable extrapolation would suggest that those of us unfortunate to live to be 100 will face the prospect of no sex life at all! And it beggars belief in statistical terms what might indeed happen if you were 110!)
However, on a more optimistic note, it is informative to read of the work of the Psychiatrist George Vaillant. Vaillant is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He has been the Director for the last 35 years of a huge longitudinal study which has been charting the lives of 824 men and women over the last 60 years. These people have been surveyed and regularly medically assessed throughout this study. Vaillant’s work shows that contrary to conventional wisdom, many people are happier in their old age than they were when they were younger.
Vaillant, in a lovely turn of phrase says, “The study shows that successful aging is not an oxymoron. You can add life to your years instead of just years to your life.”
When asked what advice he would give people to facilitate successful aging he produced this list (this is not advice based on conventional wisdom but backed by his extensive research):
• A good marriage before age 50.
• Have mechanisms to cope with difficult situations.
• Altruistic behaviour. (True – this is not just me banging on again!)
• Stop smoking.
• Do not use alcohol to the point that your behaviour shames you or your family.
• Stay physically active. Walk, run, mow your own grass, play tennis or golf.
• Keep your weight down.
• Pursue education as far as your native intelligence permits.
• After retirement stay creative, do new things, learn how to play again.
Interestingly Vaillant concedes there are some uncontrollable factors that affect successful aging. Some of these include parent’s social class, family cohesion, longevity of ancestors, and childhood temperament. However once a person reaches an age of 70 even these predetermining factors no longer have relevance.
Two things that mitigate against successful aging are:
• Ill-health by age 50.
• Major depression.
The Macarthur Foundation Study of Aging also brings optimism to the subject. This is a ten year study of several thousand men and women. The study found that successful aging appears to depend primarily on the ability to maintain three main behaviours or characteristics: low risk of disease or disease-related disability, high mental and physical function and active engagement with life. The study shows that with the right stimuli not only are mental and physical capacities maintained but that they can be positively enhanced.
Discoveries in modern neuroscience have confirmed that the brain’s plasticity is far greater than we had previously assumed. This allows the possibility, even at advanced age, of some rehabilitation or enhancement of brain function.
Aging is an insidious phenomenon. It sneaks up on you while you are not watching. Most days you get out of bed feeling much the same as you were the day before. You don’t even notice the minuscule additional effort it takes to rise to your feet.
But the consoling thing is that the quality of experience that I had in the last year seems just as good to me as the quality of experience I have had in any other year of my life. There are still meaningful things to do, wonderful people to relate to and new things to learn.
I should confess to you that as I write this little essay I have just celebrated a birthday. In reminiscing it seems to me that I have had a very fortunate life, and though no one by any means could say that I am very old, I am optimistic enough to believe that life is still good and will continue to be so for some time yet. So this is not a whinge about aging. It is more an affirmation that life is good. And the research findings above should teach us that aging, for many, is not to be greatly feared.
There was a lovely little song that Harry Secombe (famous as “Neddie Seagoon” from the Goon Show but also a rather fine Welsh tenor) used to sing that seems to me to have a bearing on the issue. I searched the internet but could not find the words. To the best of my recollection it went like this:
“They say that I’ve reached the time of life
That’s slightly past the prime of life
And yet, and yet towards the sun I’m turning.
They say that I should save myself,
Settle down, behave myself,
And yet, and yet, there are bridges still for burning.
Let the young and foolish pick the blossoms from the vine;
The years may go before they know the flavour of the wine.
The memories I’ve been savouring, the children I’ve been fathering
May fade and die, take wings and fly and each to my regret;
And yet, and yet, it seems to me the best is yet to be.”
And it seems to me also that “The best is yet to be!”