SENIOR MINDS AND BODIES: Sage and Healthy Aging

Blog subscribers have been recommending stimulating articles and essays linking elders’ health to our focus and attitudes. Here are excerpts to give you a taste, plus links to let you read the full sources if you’re intrigued.

David M. spotted and shared this BBC piece by 76-year-old Sir Michael Morpurgo, former Children’s Laureate:

        Strange thing, getting old – because I never thought it would happen to me. Well, it has, and quite suddenly too. Life these days is punctuated with little reminders. A certain reluctance, that I never had when I was young, when it comes to looking in the mirror. Full body or face. Neither merits a second glance. Mirrors are in fact a perfect nuisance. In [elevators] with mirrors all round, sometimes you catch a glimpse of the back of a head that always lacks more hair than last time you looked, less than you had supposed or hoped.

And a casual glance at a shop window as you pass by catches you walking more bent. Two choices. One, play the part. Beethoven, hands behind his back, bent into the wind, hair flying, as he composes the Pastoral Symphony? Or you straighten up and walk younger, more youthfully, a sprightly step, just in case anyone else had noticed the elderly slouch. No-one has of course because no-one is looking. But I noticed. I do the Beethoven walk into the wind, humming the Pastoral. Good choice.

In truth of course, you hardly need mirrors to remind you that the years are marching on. There are plenty of other signs you can’t avoid noticing. You have to think before you bend down to pick anything up, or tie a shoelace. There are bathtubs too deep to get out of, so you have to turn turtle and push yourself up and out. But at least no-one is looking. Then there are far too many kind people these days offering you a seat on the bus or the subway. Your little grandson outruns you easily on a country walk, and no longer just because you are pretending to let him win. You can pretend you are pretending, if you like; but he’s not fooled, no-one is fooled. I’m not fooled.

And these days I’m finding there are far too many visits to doctors and nurses, wonderful though they are. I was used to tests when I was young – vocabulary tests, comprehension tests, spelling tests. It’s blood tests now.

Then there’s losing old friends, and neighbors, and family. Not sure you ever get used to being an orphan. That’s maybe the worst of being old, and getting older. There are more people you miss, and with every one that goes, you are more alone….

What keeps me going are the young, and the very old, the remarkably old. The young are beacons that burn bright with new hope, new energy, and the beauty of fervor, the joy of discovery. To be with them, to work with them, is to be inspired, feel the enchantment and excitement of youth again, to share it, to live in its glow. With them, around them, playing, talking, working, the years peel away. Age no longer wearies. When they’ve gone I know they have tired me, but I sleep deep and wake contented, refreshed, younger in heart.

Just as rejuvenating and energizing to me are the examples of those who have lived long, and never aged, some of the generation before me, whose lives have been lived fully, who have stayed positive to the end, active, and who have contributed so much to all of us. They are my mentors. I will try to tread where they have trod, keep right on to the end of the road….

Personal reflections by the New York Times’s David Leonhardt. [Nancy T. shared this but she and I have not yet succeeded in identifying a citation or link. Can anyone help?]

You don’t get better as you age. Then again, you don’t get worse. Or maybe you don’t but someone else does, or the judgment can be made only in categories, by dividing the different aspects of you: your body, your mind, your mood, your munificence. I’m 54 now, and aging is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s also the greatest blessing that I’ve ever been given: I’m not just still around, but I also savor the wisdom of greater perspective and the freedom of letting many of the demands I once made of myself fall by the wayside. The hell of aging is limits. But that’s the heaven of it, too. Sometimes to have the parameters of your life shrink is to be unburdened of too many decisions and of indecision itself….

You can’t come to any one conclusion about age. You can’t take any one position: not in employment practices, not in political picks, not in your own expectations about when you’ll hit your stride, when you’re in your prime, and which phases of life will be a slog or a cakewalk….

Alison has forwarded two contributions, one analytical, the other sardonic.

Harvard School of Public Health, “New Evidence that Optimists Live Longer”

After decades of research, a new study links optimism and prolonged life. Researchers from Harvard, Boston University and VA Boston Healthcare System have found that individuals with greater optimism are likely to live longer and to achieve “exceptional longevity,” that is, living to age 85 or longer. Optimism refers to a general expectation that good things will happen, or believing that the future will be favorable because we can control important outcomes. Whereas research has identified many risk factors that increase the likelihood of diseases and premature death, much less is known about positive psychosocial factors that can promote healthy aging.

The study was based on 69,744 women and 1,429 men….Women were followed for 10 years, while the men were followed for 30 years….optimism may be modifiable using relatively simple techniques or therapies….more optimistic people may be able to regulate emotions and behavior as well as bounce back from stressors and difficulties more effectively.…more optimistic people tend to have healthier habits, such as being more likely to engage in more exercise and less likely to smoke, which could extend lifespan….

Bertrand Russell, “How to Grow Old”

In spite of the title, this article will really be on how not to grow old, which, at my time of life, is a much more important subject. My first advice would be to choose your ancestors carefully….

This, I think, is the proper recipe for remaining young. If you have wide and keen interests and activities in which you can still be effective, you will have no reason to think about the merely statistical fact of the number of years you have already lived, still less of the probable shortness of your future….

Psychologically, there are two dangers to be guarded against in old age. One is undue absorption in the past. It does not do to live in memories, in regrets for the good old days, or in sadness about friends who are dead. One’s thoughts must be directed to the future, and to things about which there is something to be done. This is not always easy; one’s own past is a gradually increasing weight. It is easy to think to oneself that one’s emotions used to be more vivid than they are, and one’s mind more keen. If this is true, it should be forgotten. If it is forgotten, it will probably not be true. The other thing to be avoided is clinging to youth in the hope of sucking vigor from its vitality. When your children are grown up, they want to live their own lives. If you continue to be as interested in them as you were when they were young, you are likely to become a burden to them. I do not mean that one should be without interest in them, but one’s interest should be contemplative and, if possible, philanthropic, but not unduly emotional. Animals become indifferent to their young as soon as their young can look after themselves. But human beings, owing to the length of infancy, find this difficult.

I think that a successful old age is easiest for those who have strong impersonal interests involving appropriate activities. It is in this sphere that long experience is really fruitful, and it is in this sphere that the wisdom born of experience can be exercised without being oppressive….

To draw this selection to a close, Susan relayed a typically lyrical and evocative excerpt from Pico Iyer:

Colette, in her meditation on the splendor of autumn and the autumn of life, celebrated it as a beginning rather than a decline. But perhaps it is neither – perhaps, between its falling leaves and fading light, it is not a movement toward gain or loss but an invitation to attentive stillness and absolute presence, reminding us to cherish the beauty of life not despite its perishability but precisely because of it; because the impermanence of things – of seasons and lifetimes and galaxies and loves – is what confers preciousness and sweetness upon them.

AUTUMN LIGHT: Season of Fire and Farewells (2019)