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14 March  The Philosophy of Ageing  - Derek Maitland

A philosophy for a second life

I’d like to begin with a couple of quite vivid personal impressions of the ageing process -- and, not so much what they mean, but what they imply for those of us who are starting to advance a little uncomfortably closer toward what we might hitherto have laughingly called the Grim Reaper.

Impression number one is of a megalithic community on the Indonesian island of Sumba, east of Bali, which I visited as a magazine writer some 30 years ago. In the tribal chief’s huge teak hut I came across what looked like three piles of traditional weavings positioned around the central hearthplace.

It was explained to me that these were the bodies of dead family members, embalmed in a sitting position by multiple layers of these dramatically decorated blankets – there to keep cosy by the fireside, to be offered food and betal nut each day, to be consulted and chatted to whenever one felt like it, to remain, in fact, an integral part of the family routine, as if they were still alive.

I thought it was wonderful. It seemed to be such a tender, nurturing, dignified ritual when compared with our modern-day rush to get our aged and dying out of sight, out of mind, as quickly as possible. But then it occurred to me that we ourselves once treated our aged and dying with a similar care and dignity. Or duty, anyway. And as long as they were alive. They remained in our home, they were fed and cared for each day, they were consulted and chatted to just like the mummified corpses of Sumba, right up to the time they died and were finally laid to rest.

Impression number two is a bit different. You may have seen the movie “A Private Function” produced several years ago by George Harrison’s Handmade Films and set in the austere days of food rationing in Britain right after World War 2.

Without going into detail, Maggie Smith stars as a desperate upwardly mobile housewife with an ageing mother -- living with her of course -- who’s terrified of the family doctor, a cynical tyrant who arrogantly, cruelly keeps suggesting she should be put in a home. Each time the doctor visits, the poor old dear breaks into her multiplication tables – “Twelve twelves is a hundred and forty-four” – in a pathetic bid to prove she’s not demented.

Impressions number three and four deal with my own ageing process, or rather my brave but tragically vain attempt to conquer it, to declare, in fact, that age shall not whither me. Five years ago I accomplished the second bunjy jump of my life – a terror-stricken but heroic 400-foot dive off the top of a giant crane on the harbourfront in Helsinki, Finland.

There I was at 60-plus -- ageless, indestructible. But within the following twelve months I almost drowned on my boogie board in a monster rip and gigantic surf at Bronte Beach – and I still, to this day, don’t know how I survived – and then, to my lasting embarrassment, I fell off my rollerblades. fractured my left elbow and nearly ended up under the wheels of a car.

In the emergency department at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, an impossibly young intern perused my X-ray and asked: “How did you do this?”
I told him in a very quiet whisper: “I fell off my rollerblades.”
He cocked an ear at me: “I beg yours …?”
I whispered again: “I fell off my rollerblades.”
“You did what?”
“YOU FELL OFF YOUR ROLLERBLADES. WOW!” he cried. And to my surprise, the interns and nurses around him cheered and gave me clenched fist salutes. He said -- and I kid you not -- “I wish I had a camera so that I could take a picture to remind me what I should be like when I’m your age.”

I tell you, I didn’t walk from the hospital that day. I swaggered.

But the truth is, I knew from that moment on that I suddenly wasn’t ageless and indestructible at all. I was getting old – a typical silly old bugger, what’s he trying to prove at his age, behaving like a kid, get him down from there before he does himself an injury … And one day I was going to die. And it came as a rather sad shock.

But that’s not an unusual response – and it’s very eloquently explained by the American surgeon, author and expert on dying, Sherwin Nuland. “The onset of ageing can be so gradual,” he writes, “that we are often surprised to find that one day it is fully upon us. The changes to the senses, appearance, reflexes, physical endurance and sexual appetites are undeniable – and rarely welcome.”

There are other experts on ageing and death who point to this syndrome as being particularly painful for the biggest ageing population of all time, the baby boomers. We boomers and war babies are understandably confused about old age because our life-expectancy has jumped sharply in recent years.

We 60-year-olds are practically the 40-year-olds of yesteryear. Our 80-year-olds will be the new 60-pluses.  In fact, 80-year-olds are Australia’s fastest growing age group, and will rise by 40 percent over the next three decades.  At this time, more than 3,000 people in Australia are over 100 years old.

With the quite remarkable rise in health standards – through diet, exercise, education etc – that we’ve seen in the past half-century, many ageing boomers, particularly, have reached retirement age facing a retirement period of not just two decades but three and maybe even four before they die.

Imagine that. Some of us may have another life ahead of us that’s as long as our working life.

The government, extremely nervous about the estimated three-trillion dollars that it’ll take to care for us in that timespan, has urged us not to retire at all, but to continue working. Which many of us want to do, of course.  Demand it, in fact.

And indeed, if there’s anything that distinguishes the ageing boomers from previous generations it’s our determination to work, and remain in the socio-economic fast-track, until we drop.

But of course, the jobs aren’t there for retirement age “seniors,” as we’re called. And neither is there a general acceptance and appreciation within the corporate economy that the elderly can and should be employed beyond retirement age for the valuable experience, mentoring and training we can offer.

In 1999, which happened to have been the International Year of Older Persons – though I, like many, missed it entirely – a so-called new philosophy for ageing was drawn up. It called for elderly retirees, or non-retirees, to become what it termed stewards for society and the planet – in guardianship of the rights and needs of our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

This stewardship, so the philosophy goes, requires us to take a third journey in the life cycle, the journey to a deeper engagement with wisdom and compassion, as the essential qualities of a wise elder.

Now this is all very noble and lovely, but there’s another tremendous change in thinking, in philosophy if you like, that has to take place before we can talk about guardian stewards and wise elders. We have to shake off 200 years of industrial age tradition and discipline before we can spread our philosophical wings as elders.

Think about it this way: industrialization and the assembly lines of Fordism forced many of us to think of work as a job for life, and to specialize in that one job, high-end or menial as it might be, at the cost of a multitude of other interests and opportunities. Work became even more specialized and focused on one discipline as the corporate office materialized and mushroomed. 

The result was the retirement syndrome – forced redundancy at 60 or so, a pension, perhaps a gold watch, but certainly a Devil’s handshake, a doting finality – you’ve paid your dues, you’ve earned it God bless you, here’s your slippers, here’s your pruning shears, now enjoy what’s left of your golden years before the prostate swells to the size of a tennis ball, or, worse still, the dreaded Altzheimer’s kicks in, and anything more physically brazen than line dancing can be considered a desperate attempt to slow or stop the deathly, inexorable ticking of the clock.

It sounds horrible, doesn’t it? But that’s where a lot of us – today’s mid-60 year-olds stand today, as far as our society is concerned while we paradoxically face anything up to 30 more years of life, maybe 40.

In terms of time, it’s almost a new life. A second time round. And it can be either a depressing, deteriorating clock-watching experience, feeling completely betrayed and sidelined by society, shoved right out of the working mainstream, or it can indeed be a Second Life, and one far more likely to outshine the first.

What makes it even more daunting is that an estimated 50 percent of Australian boomer seniors, those of us who’ve hit our 60s, won’t have enough money – even with what the lucky ones have got left from the great superannuation scam – to support ourselves over these extended, bonus, ageing years of life. In that respect, it’s just as well that the unique generational profile of us boomers is that of a restless, energetic, aspirational crowd who regard “retirement” as a dirty word.

And those of us who do have the money will have a lot of trouble trying to fill their bonus years with anything of any great personal and social value. How many times can you rearrange the garden? How many cruises can you take? How much baby sitting can you do before the grandchildren grow up and start shaking you down for pocket money?

The secret to Second Life survival, as I’ve found, and a lot of us are beginning to learn, is reinvention -- personal reinvention, creative reinvention, spiritual reinvention, and not just once, but again and again if need be, every time we feel we’re forced to readjust ourselves to cope with the demands of our long, hard, seemingly endless golden years.

Again, it’s just as well that we boomers have also been classified as “creature of change.” We’re going to need it.

Indeed, my own personal campaign to keep working, keep making an income, keep coming up with new skills, keep feeling young and alive has shown me something of the tools we need, the decisions we have to take, to at least stay perched on the edge of the mainstream of life.

Primarily, reinvention involves a deep and very truthful personal audit of skills we once had but didn’t really do anything with; interests that flitted in and out of our lives, but we had no time to really pursue; dreams we had, but found they were beyond our capacity at the time to make reality.

The Sydney Morning Herald columnist Adele Horin puts this syndrome very succinctly, referring to an identity crisis, especially among the ageing baby boomers. “If they’re not working,” she writes, “they hardly know themselves – the long hours of the work culture have foreclosed  other possibilities – hobbies, social networks, even connection with one’s family.”

And what Adele Horin’s saying, and I’m talking about from personal experience here, is something that’s echoed by Sherwin Nuland in his latest book, “How We Die.” Having listed the vital signs of approaching old age, Nuland makes the point – which I for one firmly believe – that “getting older has its surprising blessings.

“Age concentrates not only the mind, but the body’s energies, leading many to new sources of creativity, perception, and spiritual intensity. Growing old is not a disease but an art – and for those who practice it well, it can bring extraordinary rewards.”

Nuland is talking about late-age reinvention. Personal reinvention is the first bold step toward the philosophy of ageing. And the philosophy of ageing invites us to step out beyond everything we’ve been and done and believed before and seek true wisdom.

Philosophy as a science, without commenting directly on the ageing process, nonetheless assumes that it is, indeed, the role of ageing people to attain wisdom – to refine and deepen life’s consciousness of values.

Unless we’ve worked for years in the intellectual fields – and even then there’s a narrow focus and specialization in most disciplines – we’ve been rammed like steel bolts into holes by industrialization. We reach our retirement years knowing a lot about one thing, but not much else.

I like to compare this with the very distantly pre-industrial tradition of mandarins and intellectuals in ancient China, who, upon reaching retirement age, donned monk’s robes and hit the road as itinerant mendicants, searching for the rest of their days for wisdom and particularly the meaning of life. Often the Elixir of Youth as well, I might add..

And right up until the industrial age, it was quite common among educated gentlefolk – but not the impoverished masses of course – to expand and enrich their professional lives by dabbling in art, poetry, music, philosophical debate, all sorts of creative endeavours in what, for one thing, must have prepared them wonderfully for their ageing years. Though of course, they didn’t have the long bonus years of the ageing process that we face.

As far back as Plato and Socrates, we find advanced age linked directly with wisdom. For instance, both philosophers regarded the body, with its lustful senses, as the barrier to the acquisition of true knowledge and ethics. They implied that it’s only through advanced age, and the quelling of these lusts, that we’re able to acquire real sense.

Today, we have the Ulyssean Philosophy saying essentially the same thing. The Ulyssean Society was founded in 1977 by a Canadian professor, Dr John McLeish, and based on his research -- demonstrating that advanced age can be filled with continued learning, creativity, and productivity.

All we have to do to attain this creative Second Wind, if you like, is to ignore completely the hoary old myths about ageing – that we’re beyond learning new tricks once we hit our 60s, that our attitudes and opinions inevitably stultify in our senior years, that most of us become senile as we live to an advanced age.

We have to harken to the words of fellow seniors like John Wall, an incredible 61-year-old athlete featured on the ABC’s “Australian Story” in 2007. As he said: “We have to stop thinking of ourselves as the ageing greys, and start looking at ourselves as the new emerging youth.”

However, having established the link between ageing and the pursuit of new learning, new creativity – and wisdom – you may ask well, what’s the point of it all if we’re inevitably going to die? It’s not as though we’re going to be able to take it all with us.

To my mind, it’s first and foremost a matter of pride and consequent independence – pride that we’ve stayed active, productive, able to continue earning an income, able to remain in the marketplace, able to say that we’ve made the very most we can of every moment of our lives. And perhaps able, I might add, to escape the awful deadening clutches of that most dreaded trap of the modern ageing process – the nursing home.

Secondly, there’s that final, ultimate link between wisdom and death. Right through the discipline of philosophy we find impassioned references to a need to challenge, to accept, to come to terms with death. And, with the bonus years of our Second Lives, we certainly have plenty of time now to consider this.

Plato described philosophy itself as a preparation for death. It certainly is in its drive to give us some explanation of what life is all about.

But as much as we rationalize it, death is still the Grim Reaper, stationed eternally on the life-path ahead and waiting patiently for us, never to take a moment off for a quick smoke or trip to the loo. And if we admit our deepest, most secret feelings, it scares and depresses us all – the “ultimate enemy,” as the American evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould called it.

The British political theorist, Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia Woolf, pretty well sums up all our feelings about death in this comment: He describes the life cycle itself – or “the passage from non-existence to non-existence” as a “strange, and, on the whole, enjoyable experience.” But, he continues, “I resent the fact that, as seems practically certain, I shall be as non-existent after my death as I was before my birth.”

If you think logically about that, it becomes even more horrible. It implies that from our own personal point of view, we never even existed at all.

“Nothing can be done about it,” says Woolf, “and I cannot truthfully say that my future extinction causes me much fear or pain. But I should like to record my protest against it, and against the universe which enacts it.”

But in the end, of course, the philosophy of ageing is not so much why we die, or the terrible injustice of it, but how we die. Do we go raging mightily against the dying of the light, or do we prepare ourselves for it, as philosophy exhorts us.

Do we go before the Grim Reaper head-bent, or do we stand tall in the knowledge that, as I’ve said, we’ve done everything we possibly can, especially in our wiser advanced years, to live our lives to the full?

I really like what the father of psychology, Carl Gustav Jung, has to say about it. “A man (and presumably a woman too) should be able to say that he has done his best to form a conception of life after death, or to create some image of it,” he says, “even if he must confess his failure. Not to have done so is a vital loss.”

Well, I don’t know of any intelligent, rational human being who can possibly succeed in forming a concept or image of life after death, unless he or she is willing to accept religion’s completely untested promise of it. But Jung wasn’t really suggesting we have to come to a final conclusion one way or the other – he was, in fact, referring to the more worldly challenge, and promise, that we ageing boomers face now in our bonus years.

What he’s saying is that we must be prepared to arrive at the point of death with a lot more to show for ourselves than a job, a family, footie and cricket statistics, a lifetime’s shallow input of the Daily Telegraph, then the gold watch followed by years of shuffling boredom and inactivity watching the passionfruit vine creep inexorably up the outside dunny wall.

As Jung puts it, far more eloquently than me: “When I die my deeds will follow along with me. That is how I imagine it.” But he’s definitely not suggesting that we, like the rich merchant, can indeed pass our camel through the eye of a needle. What he’s saying is this: you never know; it’s all a complete mystery; but you’d be wise if you’ve taken the time and effort to hedge your bets. And you’ll be a lot more fulfilled and probably a damn sight happier.

“I will bring with me what I’ve done,” he declares. “In the meantime, it is important to ensure that I do not stand at the end with empty hands.”



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