To establish my credentials I will be 81 next month so I am not unfamiliar with the issue of old age. A few years ago my grand-daughter noticed my knee replacement scars as I sat beside their pool.
“How many time have you been cut open, Gramps?”
Counting through the years it came to nineteen, mainly orthopaedic as the bones and join began to wear out. In spite of the scars I enjoy better health than many of my contemporaries so I consider myself lucky.
To start with we have to consider the meaning of “old” as it applies to a life span. To many it is simply a number and the fact that you were born 80 years ago does not, in itself, prevent you from running a marathon. There are many more things that will prevent that ambition some of which will have been removed from your bucket list by the time you are forty.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died at the age of 35 having composed over 600 works including: 21 stage and opera works, 15 Masses, over 50 symphonies, 25 piano concertos, 12 violin concertos, 27 concert arias, 17 piano sonatas, 26 string quartets, and many other pieces. I would guess that he would have liked to have lived longer. He may have been frightened of death but he never reached old age to know whether it would frightened.
Similarly there are many other people who have made a huge impact within a short lifespan. Joan of Arc(19), Buddy Holly (22), James Dean (24), Wilfred Owen (25), John Keats(26) and Jimi Hendrix (27) all died before their 30th birthday while Anne Frank died before she was sixteen. (Incidentally, she died of typhus and not the gas chambers — not that the diagnosis had any effect on her short life.)
At the other end of the scale, the longest fully authenticated age to which any human has ever lived is 122 years 164 days by Jeanne Louise Calment (France). Born on 21 February 1875 to Nicolas (1837–1931) and Marguerite (neé Gilles 1838–1924), Jeanne died at a nursing home in Arles, southern France on 4 August 1997. She led a leisurely lifestyle within the upper society of Arles, pursuing hobbies such as fencing, cycling, tennis, swimming, roller-skating (“I fell flat on my face”), playing the piano and making music with friends. Now, as Frank Sinatra would have sung, “That’s Life!”
Fear of becoming old invariably includes the deterioration of one’s health both mental and physical but there are other issues that generate fear in too many people entering their older years. Issues such as loneliness, boredom, uncontrollable pain, lack of communication and company, fatigue, the physical inability to travel much beyond our local neighbourhood and the changing values of the modern world. These worries are often more important than the prospect of coronavirus, cancer, falling, lack of sleep, loss of bladder control and any enthusiasm for food.
Certainly, as we get older, we need more help but we do not need to be overwhelmed by well-intentioned friends. We may do things slower, but we have time - which is a commodity rarely enjoyed by the younger generations.
I walk with a stick as my balance can be unreliable but I walk to the Post Office 150 years away most mornings, with our small dog on the lead, to collect the newspaper and essentials like milk and eggs. On the short journey I chat with the dog walkers, workmen repairing the stone wall, the teacher on his way to work, the local retired doctor — and that’s before I even get to the Post Office.
I am a retired vet (veterinarian to my American friends) and I get the occasional question from a worried pet owner. My advice seems to be divided 50:50 between reassurance and recommendation to consult their local veterinary practice. But it makes me feel useful and valued which is something that many people seem to lose as they age.
I can still drive to the local small market town to exchange library books, amble round the small supermarket and chat with the local butcher. Larger shopping expeditions will soon become more difficult but, being one of the fortunate number of the older generation who can use a computer, I will be able to arrange home delivery of the heavier items.
Many people of my generation find stimulation from the radio or television – although the latter seems to cater more for the shorter attention span of the young. I prefer to subscribe to Internet newsletters, blogs and podcasts and as a result I am learning far more than I ever did at school. My spinal arthritis prevents a certain amount of physical activity but I still enjoy watching Nature’s activities in the garden from my rocking chair and I can still stand at the hob and cook a tasty nasi goreng or marinade a spatchcock chicken.
Loneliness often results from lack of communication. Our peer group are beginning to fall off their perches so we need to develop new relationships or strengthen existing ones. The young, in the form of grandchildren, nieces and nephews, will often respond if approached in the right way.
It is only later that they may develop a curiosity about our own childhood memories — but that may come if they show an interest. Begin by asking about their interests, their hopes, their goals rather than telling them about your ‘deprived’ childhood — and listen.
Don’t overcrowd them. One text message or email a fortnight is enough to start with. Asking them about their views on the future of our world will throw up some surprising replies. Many of them will never had considered the question but it might stimulate their young minds to think for themselves.
Never, ever, talk down to them — you will lose them in an instant. The same applies to any questions about relationships. Let them come to you — and they will.
Boredom? That is entirely up to you. When was the last time you spoke over the fence to a neighbour? Have you ever been to a coffee shop and asked if you could join another single person at their table? Can’t stand bridge, American history or origami — what about a book club? If you have an iPad our computer use YouTube to learn a new skill like editing your digital photos. If you are not the “computer type” get out those old photo albums and identify the subjects by adding descriptive titles to the old images. Once you are gone there may not be anyone left who can identify the subjects and the album will be consigned to the garbage tip. Talk to a librarian, phone a friend you haven’t spoken to for the past year or ask your local pensioner association if there are lonly people in your area.
“There is nothing to fear but fear itself” must be one of the World’s most unhelpful remarks. I much prefer Ralph Waldo Emerson saying “Do that which you fear to do and the fear will die.” This applies particularly to those of us who are naturally shy and withdrawn — do that which you fear to do.
Do you consider yourself lucky or unlucky to have reached your current age? Does fear or optimism govern your life? A large part of the answer lies within yourself.