The Art of Ageing
Inspiration for a Positive and Abundant Later Life
By John Lane, Clifford Harper
Green Books Ltd Copyright © 2010 John Lane
All rights reserved.
SOME THOUGHTS ON GROWING OLD
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.
John Keats, Ode to Autumn
Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.
SO LONG AS our faculties are reasonably sound and we only suffer from the lesser infirmities of advancing age, our final decades can be joyous and fulfilling. Some people may experience bad health, unhappiness and grief, but for many these years can be amongst the happiest they have known – years that provide unequalled opportunities for creative growth enriched by mature relationships with children, grandchildren, spouse or partner and beloved friends.
It is a period which can offer exceptional opportunities. Compared with the restless uncertainties (or hot-headed idealism) of adolescence, it can provide a satisfying stability. Compared, too, with the hectic business of our middle years – usually taken up with the development of family and career – the first years of retirement give us the freedom to explore those ambitions which other preoccupations denied us in the past. As well as increasing physical difficulties, advanced age can bring its own rewards.
It can replace the shallowness of inexperience with a depth of understanding and complexity of being; and restless speed with the serenity of untroubled leisure. Now there is time for experiment and creativity, time for exploring our different potentials, time to live in accordance with our dreams, time to be ourselves.
And as well as this freedom to find a wide range of new interests, ageing has something else to offer: the value of modesty. When the 93-year-old cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practise his instrument for three hours a day, he wrily replied: "I'm beginning to notice some improvement."
To become an elder is surely (I hope) to grow in wisdom. It is to join the fellowship of those who have found a balance between energy and contemplation, adventure and reflection, enthusiasm and tranquillity. The choice is ours: to become a gloomy pessimist or a life-loving master of the art of living well. "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life," writes Thoreau.
As I grow older, thinking about death, through all my melancholy there arises a profound sense of acceptance, a recognition of the fragility and impermanence of life. And let's face it: as Montaigne observed, death is only a few bad moments at the end of life.
Meanwhile, I am relieved to discover that although some faculties are closing down (packing up is probably the better description), other things – inner things – are quietly taking their place. My relationship with the world is shifting from 'outer' to 'inner' concerns. Joy, silence, stillness and contemplation are becoming more important; making, doing and rushing around becoming much less so. As a young man I was immersed in active living – study, work, the pursuit of career and the rearing of children. My attention now has an inward thrust. I love to read, paint, write and listen to music. I find a growing satisfaction in the observation of small things: how the wind is moving through the boughs of a tree, how the tide advances at the water's edge; or the beauty of a scarlet sun sinking behind a bank of grey and violet-coloured cloud. These perceptions, like friendship and the discovery of new knowledge, prove to be deeply nourishing.
Years ago I took delight in travelling. There was my discovery of India, from which I have yet to recover; and the old, the traditional Japan, hardly less stimulating. In different years I have travelled to Russia, Lithuania, Thailand, Morocco, Cambodia, New Zealand, Sweden, Australia and the United States. I now find the contemplation of a few yards of autumnal hedgerow to be enough. Look at the colour of these silvering branches! Look at these ancient white stones and these decaying leaves! Stop to consider the flight of birds settling in the naked branches of a tree and the shining, lacquered surface of a puddle of water. This season's oozy brown, blancmangey mud has its own magnificence. It's December, and the cold wind on my face is a reminder that I am alive!
A similar reconfiguration has occurred, I discover, with respect to my appreciation of works of art. I shall never forget the excitement with which I first heard, say, Alfred Deller's beautiful rendering of Purcell's Music for a While. That was wonderful enough, but I now appreciate music with a depth and breadth of knowledge of which I had no understanding at that time. The seed of Purcell has flowered into a Paradise garden of exotic and wonderful blooms.
These late years have also given me yet another freedom: the freedom to be myself, to ignore the confirmation of external approval, to reject today's materialism, its adolescent obsession with fast and excessive living. I like to believe that I have even freed myself from the bondage of conventional behaviour. This is our life, our time, and, within the limits of our responsibilities to others and the environment, it should be enjoyed for its own sake, without constraint from the twin poisons of remorse and guilt.
Nonetheless, getting older is no joke. Ageing takes courage and a stoicism which contrasts with the self-confident and assertive mood of one's earlier years. Ageing is not for the faint-hearted, and anyone who watches the decrepitude of advancing years with a sympathetic eye is often obliged to confess how wretched it can be. "To preside over the disintegration of one's own body, looking on as sight and hearing, strength, speed and short-term memory deteriorate, calls for a heroism that is no less impressive for being quiet and patient," writes Mary C. Morrison.
Although the speed and the degree with which a body deteriorates will vary from person to person, few escape from illness altogether. Other factors can also complicate the passage of old age: the need to downsize, the continuing responsibility towards children, and, perhaps most traumatic of all, the death of close family members. Old people can face financial difficulties, bemoan the deaths of beloved friends and consider without exaggeration that the better part of our lives has already passed.
Yes, it can be a time of sadness and great loss, but also a rewarding period of meaning and spirituality, one that allows each of us to die content in the knowledge that we have at least in part fulfilled the task of becoming the individual we were born to be. There is, of course, no limit to our endeavour to become that person. A full life should have granted us the opportunity to become aware of the lights and shadows, the ascents and descents, the raptures and the disappointments of that tremendous journey.
Depending on who you are, and on the particular gifts with which you have been endowed, your life should have given you at least a handful of opportunities to realise yourself. That, at least, has been my own experience and that of most of my friends. Some have discovered the pleasures of choral singing, digging for archaeological remains, fishing; or, like my mother, helping children to learn to swim. Others have explored bookbinding, photography, ornithology and gardening, or have offered their skills to organisations serving humanitarian, political, religious and cultural causes of many different kinds.
One of my friends is learning to read music, and is taking lessons in singing and in speaking Italian, skills she had always dreamt of being able to practise, but only now has the time and the means to enjoy. Others have found contentment studying a particular subject with the Open University, the Workers' Educational Association and the University of the Third Age. Yet others have found fellowship and contentment through sport. Rugby and football may no longer be the most suitable physical exercise, but bowls, cricket, croquet, swimming, golf and even tennis are played by many older people, as well as board games, such as chess, which satisfy the competitive urge.
The attractions and responsibilities of a second parenthood keep us in contact with the young and the modern world. There is so much we can learn from our grandchildren. They can help to prevent us becoming grumpy and churlish, and help us adapt to a world very different from the one we knew as children. Being a grandparent is a privilege and a pleasure, and for many it is the principal and most rewarding task of old age, a joy deferred.
There can be no certainty about the life pattern to come and its outcome. Yet whatever occurs, old age is neither all bad nor all good. Like adolescence and other challenging stages of life, it is an uneven mixture of both. "Ageing," writes Thomas Cole, "like illness and death, reveals the most fundamental conflict of the human condition: the tension between infinite ambition, dreams, and desires on the one hand, and vulnerable, limited, decaying physical existence on the other – the tragic and ineradicable conflict between body and spirit. This paradox cannot be eradicated by the wonders of modern medicine or by positive attitudes towards growing old."
William Blake, in his long poem Auguries of Innocence, expressed this dualism with perfect concision:
Man was made for Joy & Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro' the World we safely go.
Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
A SHORT HISTORY OF AGEING
The cause of death is birth, and on your way there you might want to enjoy things.
We already have the statistics for the future: the growth percentages of pollution, overpopulation, desertification. The future is already in place.
The longevity revolution
Nature is prodigal with life. She is extravagant with birth, encouraging countless more beings to be born than can ever survive to their breeding age, and is no less profligate with death. At least 56 million humans die every year, and half of the small animal and bird population. Creatures as diverse as the blue whale, the praying mantis, the salmon and many species of insect will spawn hundreds of thousands of young for every one that survives. Living to old age in the wild is a rare occurrence. Although it has been said that the Hebrew prophet Methuselah lived for 969 years, the archaeological evidence records that half the men and women of the Neanderthal and Upper Palaeolithic periods died before they were twenty. Only a few lived beyond the age of 50 – Nature or the gods were blamed for accidents, for plague, pestilence, famine and wars. At the time of the Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493-1541), sickness was thought to be the scourge of God.
By the European Middle Ages, the average age of death had risen to about thirty. Food shortages, illness, a poor diet and dirty living conditions all meant that many never experienced longevity. Infectious diseases and accidents – such as drowning, falling, or getting burned by open fires – killed almost half of all children before they were five years old. But those who were tough and lucky enough to reach the age of 20 might hope to live for another 25 years. One of my favourite authors, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), looking back on his youth, saw the age of 30 as the watershed dividing vigour from decline.
From the Bronze Age to the end of the 19th century, life expectancy only grew by an estimated 29 years. Yet since the beginning of the 20th century, in the industrialised world at least, there has been an unprecedented gain of more than 30 years of average life, to over 77.
For the first time in recorded history we are beginning to benefit from a revolution in life-extending medicine and public health. A century or so ago the majority did not live to know their grandchildren, but now we can anticipate the prospect of seeing our great-grandchildren. Progress in medicine and in science and technology is leading us to anticipate several decades of uninterrupted leisure. American women now have a life expectancy of 84 years, and men of 81 years. "During any one of those (extra) years," writes Theodore Roszak, "somebody who no longer has to worry about raising a family, pleasing a boss, or earning more money will have the chance to join with others in building a compassionate society where people can think deep thoughts, create beauty, study nature, teach the young, worship what they hold sacred, and care for one another. Once we realise that, we should have no difficulty understanding the most important fact about the longevity revolution. It has given this remarkable generation the chance to do great good against great odds."
Yet, if a growing population has been regarded as a prime measure of social progress, it is now beginning to be seen as a problem as great as climate change. Today there are four working people for every retired person, and the cost of paying for a decent income for the retired already seems considerable. Yet in 45 years' time there will be just two workers for every retired person. According to Jackie Ashley, writing in The Guardian, that's simply impossible. "So what's the answer? Mass euthanasia? Slums for the aged? The importation of millions of young African or Asian people to fill the workforce? Outlandish thoughts, perhaps: but where are the inlandish ones?"
The population explosion
At the same time that increasing numbers are being born, people are also surviving for many more years – into their eighties and nineties, and even longer. Nearly twenty per cent of the population of these islands is now over retirement age, which means that for the first time in our history there are more pensioners than children under the age of 16. In 1952, when Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, she sent 255 celebratory telegrams to every one of her subjects who had attained their hundredth birthday. More than 12,000 are required today.
These figures have been described as a demographic time-bomb. As more and more older people become dependent on a diminishing pool of tax-paying workers, there will be unprecedented consequences for pensions, economies and political systems.
An early warning of the danger of overpopulation was given by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, an English economist and pioneer student of population studies who lived in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, when there were fewer than one billion people in the world. In 1798 Malthus wrote his famous essay The Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, observing that the drain of populations on available resources can be catastrophic, Malthus contended that future poverty was unavoidable because populations increase geometrically, outdistancing the means of subsistence, which can increase only arithmetically.
Malthus's predictions are now much questioned, but we still need to consider how the growing proportion of elderly people is to be supported by a dwindling number of young ones. Could pensions and health care collapse under the unstoppable pressure? Meanwhile James Lovelock and others have argued that we need to bear in mind the likely prospect of global warming being caused by the existence of more people, their pets and their animals than the Earth can comfortably carry. In The Vanishing Face of Gaia, he argues that the present world population of some seven billion people is wholly unsustainable and needs to be greatly reduced. "I am not a willing Cassandra and in the past have been publicly sceptical about doom stories, but this time we do have to take seriously the possibility that global heating might all but eliminate people from the Earth."
If these warnings are not enough (and to them must be added the catastrophic impact of resource depletion and environmental degradation), our ancient, irresistible and hubristic yearning for perennial life continues to seduce scientists into seeking solutions to the so-called 'problem' of ageing. Even now plans are being made to develop a substance to slow down the process. The Independent (9th July 2009) reports that "Rapamycin, a pharmacological product used to prevent rejection in organ transplants, has been found to extend the lifespan of mice by up to thirty-eight per cent, raising the possibility that it may delay ageing in people ..." These results are attracting considerable excitement, and an accompanying article in Nature by two of the world's leading experts on the ageing process openly asks the question: "Is this the first step towards an anti-ageing drug for people?"
I am with Montaigne, who cautioned his readers that we should not tamper with nature. "She knows her business better than we do," he wrote. I don't imagine that I am alone in my apprehension for the future of our species on this overworked and heavily plundered planet.
The conquest of the old
In the 17th century, capitalism and the industrial mode of production created a revolution in work and thought, politics and markets, culture and leisure, of an immense and continuing impact. Progress and its values demanded not only improved machinery but a new kind of thinking: a new kind of human being. (Continues...)
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