Old Age and Insights

July 25, 2013

On the occasion of my aunt's and uncle's 60th wedding anniversary

On the occasion of my aunt’s and uncle’s 60th wedding anniversary

As you know from my earlier posts about visiting my 94-year-old father on his Minnesota farm, my mind has been preoccupied with aging.  This post shares some writings that have been on my radar.

“The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding)”
First, one of my friends and readers sent me an article by Oliver Sacks from the New York Times which he wrote on the occasion of his 80th birthday.  Sacks says, “I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”  Like most of us, he wishes to “die in harness,” loving and working fruitfully through the end, but he acknowledges that “the specter of dementia or stroke looms.”  I found it interesting that Sacks, this most accomplished man, spoke of some regrets, too:  “I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done.”  I have provided a link to the complete article, which I believe is well worth reading.

“Retiring Later May Stave Off Dementia”
Then I saw an article in the Seattle Times that cited a French study whose findings indicated that working longer/retiring later could delay the onset/progression of dementia.  My mother had Alzheimer’s and my father is now experiencing short-term memory loss, so I believe there is a rather high chance that eventually my mind will begin to go down the path of dementia.  You would think that I would find this article heartening, but I don’t!  I think this sends the message that those of us unfortunate to have dementia did not work hard enough, exercise our minds enough, eat right, or whatever, and brought this terrible disease upon ourselves.  And I just don’t believe that.  My attitude is more, there but for the grace of God, go I.

The Force of Character
Rather than thinking about old age as a medical condition, I respond better to a more sacramental approach — looking at the ageing and declining body as a source of insights and continuing soul expression and growth.  One of the best books I’ve read that talks about the “forming of character that is actually taking place in these ‘symptoms’ of aging” is James Hillman’s The Force of CharacterI first mentioned this book in this blog post.  Hillman says:

  • “When the body begins to sag, it is abandoning sham and hypocrisy.  The body leads the way down, deepening your character.”
  • About those mid-night excursions to the bathroom:  “Suppose, however, that the getting up from sleep awakens you not only in the night, but to the night. . . . Awakening to the night opens a dark eye into the invisible world.  It opens an acute ear to the cautions, insights, and promptings that seem to visit only at night, disturbing sleep in order to be heard.”
  • “Forgetting, that marvel of the old mind, may actually be the truest form of forgiveness, and a blessing.”
  • “So what is left after you have left is character, the layered image that has been shaping your potentials and your limits from the beginning.”
  • “Character is refined in the laboratory of aging.”

Norwegian by Night
Finally, I will end with a great summer read, Derek B. Miller’s debut novel, Norwegian by NightWhat I love most about this thriller is its 82-year-old protagonist, Sheldon Horowitz, a recent widower who moves to Norway to be near his grand-daughter.  He’s a curmudgeon and has a philosophical outlook on life, although his nearest family sees him as a doddering old man.  They refuse to believe he was a sharp shooter in WWII and still retains his sharp mind.  His dormant skills come into play when he crosses paths with a domestic violence incident and murder in his apartment building.  I think that anyone who likes those dark Scandinavian thrillers will like this book, too.

13 Responses to “Old Age and Insights”

  1. Judy Says:

    I appear to be pondering old age a lot lately–probably because I am easing into it? Although “easing” may not be the right word.

  2. Mary Heath Says:

    I love every bit of this post. Thanks, Rosemary. Mary

  3. camilla wells paynter Says:

    This is an excellent and very thought-provoking post! Thank you! I love the Oliver Sacks quote, “freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days….” Marvelous! I think the fallacy of the Seattle Times article (which I haven’t read…I’ll take your word for it) is the assumption that “work” is the same thing for all people. This reflects a tendency in these studies and in the way they are presented in the media to grossly oversimplify very complex biological (and social) systems in order to reduce them to easily digested media “bites.” Of course, scientific research of necessity isolates phenomena, but the evening news takes this isolation and runs.

    Some people are quite unhappy in their work, and unhappiness is not conducive to physical health of any type. They have delayed the lives they wanted in exchange for a promise of being granted permission to live them “when they retire.” This is a shameful way that our culture treats youth: you are a cog in the machine for as long as we need you, then if you’re lucky, and have worked hard enough, we’ll let you out “to pasture,” where you can gambol in the fields of your dreams, if there is any gamboling left in you.

    My paternal grandmother illustrates some of these complexities, and I offer another part of her story, as one perspective on your important topic. Wilma’s work was her life. Her identity was defined by her work, however, not because she loved the work so much, but because she knew nothing else. All her pride and sense of self was wrapped up in it. When she was forced to retire, she had nothing left. No interests to engage her mind, no dreams to encourage her imagination, no obligations to demand her strength. She sat on the couch and smoked and watched TV and grew bitter. She suffered from dementia profoundly and did not reach your father’s grand age.

    My grandmother had non-Alzheimer’s dementia, a vascular condition, and as such, to some extent at least, preventable, but she had also been robbed from an early age of the tools for understanding and living according to her true nature. She fought bitterly against cultural definitions of womanhood, yet in the end, allowed herself to be defined by her culture, by her work. In doing so, she neglected what might have eased her aging, making it a blessing, rather than a burden. In neither the physical nor the sacramental sense of the term did she take care of her Heart.

    • Rosemary Says:

      Thank you for sharing your grandmother’s story. There is so much suffering in this world, physical and other. I think it is a false expectation that pain and trouble will not fall on us. It will. With luck and work, perhaps we can learn from others’ stories and handle our own trials with some grace. I hope so anyway. Thanks again.

      • camilla wells paynter Says:

        Thank you, Rosemary. It’s funny you should say this, because today, reflecting on your topic and the blessings and pains of aging, I realized how very fortunate I am to have my grandmothers’ lives and trials, the times they saw and the battles they fought, to look back on and to learn from. It’s a gift that they continue to give me. Your photo, by the way, is so touching.

  4. Dianna Marshall Says:

    After reading the NYT article, it occurred to me that most people don’t stay in their jobs longer because they can no longer handle the tasks or because they can no longer stand the work. Being in the early stages of dementia would clearly put someone into the first category – either that or the job is strictly a ‘young man’s game’, e.g. high tech.
    My mother had mixed dementia from late her 70s and on. My 75 year old sister – a highly energetic and always engaged person whom we all thought would live forever and be clear as a bell – now sufferers from Alzheimer’s. Aging is very much on my mind.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject.

    • Rosemary Says:

      Thank you for commenting. I am sorry for your suffering through dementia and Alzheimer’s of close family members. Your sister is a case in point. I can’t give too much “false” hope that by delaying retirement and working longer I can stave off these diseases. No one deserves this fate, but so many will be asked to bear it

  5. Chris Says:

    All of these very, thoughtful comments to your very, thoughtful post Rosemary, of which I agree and cannot really articulate any better…you have all voiced it so well….I would, however, like to say, that your photo of your Aunt and Uncle is so lovely…she in her pink and he in blue, holding each other’s hand. It speaks volumes of a long and deeply committed marriage and life together.
    I can’t stop looking at it!

    • Rosemary Says:

      I found their hand-holding very touching, especially being farmers in Minnesota. Let me tell you, were were not raised to be demonstrative of our affections. I can probably count on one hand the times I saw my mother and father kiss — and yet they had nine kids!! I found it poignant that when following a young dating or young married couple on the road, you’d see them through the vehicle’s back window sitting closely, side by side, shoulders touching. As the years passed, the wife eventually moved to sit near the passenger side door, with this space between her and her husband-driver. What sotries we can imagine from our gestures!

  6. Chris Says:

    I mean committed! I really need to either type slower or proof read more thoroughly!


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