Forgotten, not gone

Here’s an article of interest from by Carol Tavris, Age 74

“Age only matters while one is ageing”, said Picasso, at the age of eighty. “Now that I have arrived at a great age, I might as well be twenty.” Well, bully for him. From where I sit, far more people at eighty feel they might as well be seventy-eight. Or ninety-eight. Carl Honoré’s Bolder: Making the most of our longer lives tells us that Michelangelo finished the Pauline chapel at the age of seventy-four, Frank Lloyd Wright finished the Guggenheim Museum in New York at the age of ninety-one, and Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals at the age of seventy-four. Well, bully for them, too. Anyone can continue creating great things all their lives if they are Michelangelo, Lloyd Wright, or Franklin. Besides, their creative work began decades earlier, probably around the age of eight.

A review of books on ageing is inevitably filtered through the age, health and optimism quotient of the reviewer. Thirty years ago I wrote an essay for the New York Times, cheerfully titled “Old Age Is Not What It Used To Be”, full of encouraging news from the newly burgeoning field of gerontology. In those days, “old age” usually referred to people in their sixties and seventies, with some outliers in their eighties and even a few in their nineties. (Bernice Neugarten and other gerontologists had recently begun to speak of the “young old”, who are healthy and mentally competent, and the “old old”, who aren’t.) My essay was populated with thriving old people who were as witty, active, happy, sexually active and intellectually engaged as they had ever been, and by researchers assuring us that we won’t “lose it” so long as we remain witty, active, happy, sexually active and intellectually engaged. All very nice, cynics muttered, but how are we supposed to retain those satisfactions when every joint aches, we have lost a life partner and too many close friends, mental sharpness blurs, hearing declines, the grown-up children have decamped to foreign lands, the identities that provided meaning are gone, and we start to feel like a bump on the log of life?

As the population surges into young old age and old old age, the number of books wrestling with that question has grown from a trickle to a tsunami. Today the field of gerontology is, dare I say, older and wiser and I am older and warier. “Old age” has crept up a decade or two, reflecting the steady rise of people living into their nineties and, the fastest-growing category, into their hundreds. Many are living well, without mental or physical incapacitation, but anywhere between a quarter and a half of the population will show signs of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia by the age of eighty-five. The cost of care – emotionally and financially – is already immense. Understanding the social, physiological and economic consequences of this massive demographic change has thus become more pressing. So has the need to help people cope psychologically, now that old age can arrive almost without warning. People may go along feeling youthful and vigorous, but pain or infirmity caused by injury, bone deterioration, illness, arthritis, stenosis, or any other condition, can alter that overnight. A seventy-four-year-old friend who has spent a decade hiking in exotic places abruptly developed excruciating back pain, forcing her to curtail her adventures. “I suddenly feel old”, she said

Apart from the science journals and science-fiction novels debating whether is it possible or desirable to prolong the lifespan by fifty or a hundred years, or (might as well go for it) eternally, books designed to help readers navigate the treacheries of ageing fall roughly into three categories: the scientific, the personal and the political.

Books in the first category may provide empirical research on all aspects of the ageing boom, from biology to demographics. Sue Armstrong, the author of Borrowed Time: The science of how and why we age, is an appealing guide through the evidence and the controversies. She is a woman in her late sixties, “still swimming happily in the mainstream of life”, who watched her mother “lose her sight, her hearing, her beloved life partner and most of her friends, and finally her mind, across her ninth and tenth decades of life”. (This also describes my mother, who lived to be ninety-seven.) Armstrong goes right to the crucial issue: “what will life be like for us as we reach these venerable ages? No matter how positive and philosophical one’s general disposition, one cannot ignore the evidence that for too many of us old age is nasty, brutish and long”. A five-year-old child in the UK today can expect to live to be about eighty years old, but, for many, around twenty of those years, she observes, “will likely be dogged by ill health” – a fact that has generated immense research and argument. Is ageing (and its attendant cellular damage and decline in immune function) an inevitable result of normal wear and tear, in which case might it possibly be delayed or repaired, or is it a result of genetic programming, over which we have no control? The controversy is especially pressing today given that, in the words of one gerontologist she quotes, “health care hasn’t slowed the ageing process so much as it has slowed the dying process”.

Armstrong usefully details what ageing consists of at a cellular level and why human lifespans vary so widely. Passions in the search for an “elixir of youth” run high because the payoffs are high: psychologically, of course, but also financially, because the fountain of youth will spew fountains of gold. Can we develop a drug that works as an “anti-ageing” compound, as the immune modulator rapamycin is thought to do? Rapamycin, typically used to reduce the rejection of transplanted organs, was found to significantly improve the heart function and overall health of old mice. Unfortunately, in human beings it can have some serious side effects; its very ability to suppress the immune system and make a transplant successful also makes people more susceptible to infections and inflammation. (Recent research on rapamycin continues, with the aim of solving these problems by manipulating the dose and timing.) Another popular anti-ageing theory touts the benefits of a super-low-calorie diet, a notion born of a study showing that rodents on a severely restricted diet (low calorie but high nutrient) lived more than twice as long as the controls. Armstrong beautifully tells the story of the CRONies (the acronym stands for Calorie Restriction with Optimum Nutrition) – researchers and true believers who subjected themselves to severe caloric restriction in the name of science (and, it must be said, immortality) in spite of “constant, nagging hunger”, the disruption of social life, and other deprivations. Today, Armstrong reports, most of them have eased up: “You don’t have to do this quite so intensively to get the benefits” on health, said one investigator.

Whether the intervention involves drugs or diet, Armstrong shows, excitement is often followed by dismay when the drug has unacceptable side effects or the method doesn’t work in humans as it does in mice. She concludes with a sobering caution about any new drug that promises to prevent or reverse the ravages of time: “we all respond differently to drugs, depending on our personal biology, our genetic background and our environmental exposure”. For the scope of issues it addresses, this book serves as a fine introduction to the research and controversies about how we age.

Michelle Pannor Silver’s Retirement and Its Discontents: Why we won’t stop working, even if we can provides a thoughtful investigation of a specific transition of ageing – retirement “For many people,” Silver begins, “retirement is a much-awaited and enjoyable time in life. This book is not about those people.” It’s also not about people who retire because of health issues or who have financial struggles. Silver’s research focuses on a narrower constituency, five groups of people – doctors, CEOs, elite athletes, professors and homemakers – who were discontented in retirement because they loved what they used to do and because that work was woven into their identities. What happens now that it’s over, and over not by choice but because they felt forced to leave, or because circumstances dictated it? How do they decide what to do next? How do they structure activities, in ways that provide the social connection, fulfilment and meaning that they enjoyed throughout their careers?

These are crucial questions now that people are living longer, in many cases well beyond official “retirement” age. The answers do not necessarily come through travelling, volunteering, learning a language, or taking up art lessons – activities that can certainly be enjoyable but which for many people do not provide meaning, deep satisfaction or a new identity. I recently met a man in his seventies, a radiologist, who, once retired, spent all his time carving wood pieces of exceptional artistry. “When did you begin to develop your skill in this hobby?” I asked, expecting to hear that he was sixty or so. “At sixteen”, he said. “And my hobby was being a radiologist.” In my experience, friends and colleagues who retired with glowing fantasies of learning to play the lute, becoming a woodcarver, or acquiring another skill that takes years to master, often discover that it will take too long to make performing or creating intrinsically enjoyable. Silver’s interviewees concur, leading Silver to explore “the larger structural problems that society must grapple with as individuals confront the mismatch between an idealized retirement and the reality of giving up identity, income and status”: becoming invisible where once they were centres of attention, the person others went to for advice, help and wisdom; feeling unneeded where once they were essential. The heart of the dilemma, she writes, is that retirement, a life without the “burdens” of work, can be a burden itself: “Herein lies the irony of retirement’s lack of boundaries and lauded freedoms, which can feel like a forced rupture from our core identity”. That irony captures the bittersweet feelings that people may have at their retirement parties: “Sure, thanks for your tributes – but now what? Tomorrow you’ll have forgotten me”. (As George S. Kaufman famously noted when he saw his fellow playwright S. N. Behrman in his office the morning after the latter’s farewell party, “Ah, forgotten but not gone, eh?”) While some of the retirees Silver interviewed enjoyed a honeymoon phase – time, at last, for lute playing – most went directly to the disenchantment phase, followed by efforts to forge new identities and satisfactions. Some succeeded. Some still struggle.

By far the largest category of books aimed at the ageing consists of first-person narratives. Readers may choose among an array of companions to light and lighten the way: a spiritual guide, wise elder, psychologist, philosopher, or poet. I favour Mary Oliver (1935–2019), especially her poem “I Worried”, from which I quote:

…Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

Oliver just about sums up the themes of many of today’s guides to ageing, which often have the words “flourishing” or “thriving” or other hopeful language in their titles. Among the most popular recent additions are Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North: Navigating life’s currents and flourishing as we age and Parker Palmer’s On the Brink of Everything: Grace, gravity and getting old. (Pipher’s women are rowing north, but Palmer notes that as we age, everything is moving south: “Energy, reaction time, muscle tone, the body itself – they’re all headed back into the earth, as far south as it goes”.) Carl Honoré has written the perkiest contribution but, at fifty-two, it’s easy for him to be perky: “Denying how old you are, even in jest”, says Honoré, “denies who you are, what you have lived and where you are going. It gives the number a power it does not deserve”. Hear, hear, young man, but what if that power confers the right for your employer to fire you or not hire you at all? Pipher, just turning seventy, is warm, cheerful and optimistic: “If we can keep our wits about us, think clearly, and manage our emotions skilfully, we will experience a joyous time in our lives … if we have good maps and guides, the journey can be transcendent”. Palmer, at eighty, concurs. He likes being old, he tells us, “because the view from the brink is striking, a full panorama of my life – and a bracing breeze awakens me to new ways of understanding my own past, present, and future … I’m not given to waxing romantic about aging and dying. I simply know that the first is a privilege and the second is not up for negotiation”.

These books and many others belong to a genre as old as old age itself. (In his treatise “Hygiene” in about AD 175, Galen, ahead of his time, proposed that ageing was a natural process that could be slowed with proper diet and exercise.) Most of today’s authors convey the message that, while we cannot escape the countless losses, memory lapses and physical insults that accompany ageing, nor escape death, we can choose how to live: “choices made difficult”, Palmer acknowledges, “by a culture that celebrates youth, disparages old age, and discourages us from facing into our mortality”. Instead, we are exhorted to resist those cultural messages, recognizing that love, sex, laughing and learning are human pleasures at every age (levity is the opposite of gravity, says Palmer). Most of all, the authors emphasize the need to reframe our experiences, focusing not on what we have lost, nor on the sorrows, regrets and fears we all experience, but rather on what we can still do and enjoy. Living alone? Your friendship network has diminished? We can “learn to alchemize loneliness into solitude”, advises Pipher, and “reframe the time we spend alone as positive time and find more ways to enjoy ourselves”. Those ways include making a delicious meal, watching movies, reading and using our memories to “visit all of the people in our past”. (Why that wouldn’t make a lonely person feel even lonelier beats me, but this advice reflects the level of Pipher’s psychological sophistication. It’s kind, well-meaning and simplistic.) Nevertheless, it’s certainly true that if we no longer engage in the same work or other activities that gave our lives purpose and meaning, we can find new ones, and the new ones don’t have to be big and momentous. Honoré references the Japanese concept of ikigai, roughly meaning “a reason to get up in the morning”, something people need at all stages of life, though what that reason is will change. It can be tending the garden, walking the dog, working for a cause, doing something useful for someone you love, or a neighbour, or a stranger.

For those who prefer their guides to be less sanguine, I advise William Ian Miller’s Losing It (2011), worth the cover price for the subtitle alone: “In which an aging professor LAMENTS his shrinking BRAIN, which he flatters himself formerly did him Noble Service … A Plaint, tragi-comical, historical, vengeful, sometimes satirical and thankful in six parts, if his Memory does yet serve”. Miller is literate, surly, brutally honest and very funny. Consider this entry in the index under “Life”:

as struggle not to be laughed at, 6
unseemly clinging to, 34, 40–41
when determined happy, 244–245. See also cowardice; Cronus; death; dementia.

Because my own Memory and shrinking BRAIN so often do not serve as once they did, I read Miller at regular intervals.

The third category of books confronts discrimination on the grounds of age. Ashton Applewhite, the author of This Chair Rocks: A manifesto against ageism, focuses on “the last socially sanctioned prejudice” of age bias. Once aware of it, she began to see it everywhere: in ads, in “anti-ageing” products (“anti-living”, she growls), in pressures for facelifts and cosmetic surgery, in casual comments that someone is “too old” for a job, a haircut, a relationship. “Like racism and sexism”, she writes, “ageism is not about how we look. It’s about what people in power want our appearance to mean.” Like Honoré, she thinks the first anti-ageist action we can take is to admit our age; hers is sixty-six. Neither of them want us to be pleased at the pseudo-compliment “you look good for your age”. The correct response is: “Oh yeah? You look great for your age too!” Like Palmer, she is amazed, after interviewing an eighty-eight-year-old artist, that “life could become more fun in your eighties”. Like all writers in this genre, Applewhite wants to shatter ageist prejudices and beliefs, such as the assumption that most old people are depressed, lonely and no longer have sex (everyone seems to want to dispel that idea). Like Silver, she knows that one person’s ideal retirement is not for everyone – she is not about to “take up pole dancing or marathon running”. Nonetheless, she admonishes old people to “step up and step out”, to stop conforming, not to worry about being the oldest person in the room, and to fight age segregation, whether institutional or self-imposed. Applewhite’s spirit is fun and contagious: “Naming and claiming and de-shaming are crucial components of all successful social movements”, she concludes. Along with “Black is beautiful” and “I Am Woman” it’s time to add “We’re old, we’re bold, behold!”

I am not given to chanting, and nor was Diana Athill, whose exquisite memoir Somewhere Towards the End, published in 2008 when she was ninety, is a treasure to re-read. Athill was clear-eyed about her worries and problems. Not for her today’s crop of inspirational observations about the “transcendent journey” of ageing: her closest friend and former lover “has beaten me to physical collapse, so that I have to look after him. And I haven’t got the money to pay for care of any kind”. Her attitude is matter-of-fact: “Whatever happens, I will get through it somehow, so why fuss?” The reason to reframe our pessimistic ways of thinking, in her view, is not that optimism will make us feel better but that pessimism is so boring: it’s not surprising that old people easily slide into a general gloom, she writes, given how much we lose in our later years, “but it is very boring and it makes dreary last years even drearier”. Not for her Applewhite’s argument that all ages can and should intermix; one should never expect young people to want the company of old people, says Athill, nor make the claims on them that one makes with friends of the same age: “Enjoy whatever they are generous enough to offer, and leave it at that”. Athill died recently, after a brief illness, at the age of 101. I was relieved to learn that she did not spend her last years, as she had feared, in a geriatric ward. She had moved into a home for the “active elderly”, telling an interviewer she enjoyed her “life free of worries in a snug little nest”. And that is the ultimate issue: what are societies doing to ensure that the very old can end their lives free of worries in a snug little nest, or are able to “age in place”, at home? The answer to that question will surely go further than psychological nostrums in alleviating feelings of anxiety, loneliness and meaninglessness.

Until we have that security, we have ample advice from writers on how to fight ageism and live with the inevitable changes of body and mind that ageing inflicts. The rumble of voices, male and female, older and younger, differ but converge on the conclusion: acknowledge those infuriating gaps of memory but move on briskly to the joys that life still brings. Contemplating a potted tree fern with its nine fronds, each with a little nub at the base, Athill wrote: “This little nub is the start of a new frond, which grows very slowly to begin with but faster towards the end – so much faster that you can almost see it moving. I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it being a fern. It was worth buying”.

We will all make this journey one way or another, and it’s up to us to console and delight one another as we do, perhaps even repaving the road as we bump along, somewhere towards the end.

I, by the way, am seventy-four.

This entry was posted in 70candles, About turning 70, Adaptations and accommodations as we age, Ageism anecdotes, Aging, Attitudes about aging, Caretaking, Dealing with loss, Looking ahead, Men aging, Our bodies, our health, Poetry, Sad about aging, Work life and retirement and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Forgotten, not gone

  1. Bonnie Staughton says:

    I loved this blog by Blog Mavens on aging. I’m 71 and have been retired for 10 years. I’ve been depressed and lonely (even though I am married) but I don’t feel OLD yet. Yes, I have arthritis, need (according to 2 of my doctors) to lose some weight and have never been sure of my “purpose”, but I carry on like I always have to the best of my ability and don’t recognize myself in the faces of others of my age who seem so much older than I am. I want to be healthy and happy for my age. I know there are some restrictions on what I can do now but I attempt anything up to the point when I realize–Not Today! I intend to get some of the books that are recommended. They sound very interesting.

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