Whilst teaching today, I was asked by a pupil how long I’d
been a teacher. When I replied that it was now almost thirty-three years, the
collective gasp almost blew me over. “So how old are you?” asked one brave chappie. I don’t know what came over me,
but I asked them to guess. The lowest guess was 50 and the highest was 60. And,
as I’m 55 next birthday, they weren’t bad guesses. And apart from some remarks
such as “you’re older than my granny,” and “I never knew you were that old,” when I told them my age, I
still seemed to have some credibility left with most of them.
As to why I’m retelling this classroom anecdote here – well –
I’ve been thinking about age and ageing quite a lot recently. This is partly
due to me reaching my mid-fifties and partly due to watching the, very
different, journeys into old age experienced by three elderly relatives. I’m
also reading a book called ‘The Warmth of the Heart Prevents the Body from
Rusting’ by Marie de Hennezel. And it’s an immensely reassuring read.
Although living to a ripe old age should be viewed as a
privilege and a joy, it is something many of us appear to fear and dread. We
are scared of loss of independence and of health, both physical and mental.
According to de Hennezel, the years from fifty-five to seventy-five are early
old age and are a time of preparation for very old age. Now you may dispute the
age at which being elderly begins, but de Hennezel’s assertion that ageing is
about attitude is more difficult to disagree with as you read about her
experiences. De Hennezel is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist,
herself in her sixties.
She suggests that age is a state of mind and that one’s
quality of elderly life is utterly dependent upon one’s attitude. She’s not
advocating denial of age, or ignoring it as irrelevant. Nor is she recommending
cosmetic surgery, botox or any other way of trying to deceive the eye. What she
is urging, is maintaining love for, and faith in, life. She advocates humour
and contact with younger people and remaining engaged with the world. While she
does recognise the importance of good nutrition and exercise, she puts the
emphasis on the inner, emotional, intellectual and spiritual life. The case
studies, academic work and personal anecdotes which are incorporated in the
book are deeply thought-provoking, moving and encouraging.
My three elderly relatives bear out much of what de Hennezel
says. One of them rises early, takes daily walks, enjoys the company of all
ages, is completely clued up on world and national politics, and is in touch
with the lives of all family members, young and old. Another decided at eighty
that they were now old, and, almost overnight declined into physical and mental
frailty – for no other apparent reason than a psychological one. The third
elderly family member has progressively cut themselves off from contact with friends
and family, ceased to engage in pleasurable activities and stopped having any
interest in the wider world. They seem to have sunk into an age-related
depression, in spite of relatively good physical health.
Surprisingly, it is the first of the three individuals above
who is the oldest and who is, on paper at least, the most physically frail. And
it is he and de Hennezel who shall be my ageing role models. I plan to embrace
old age. I shall drink cocktails, not tea, at mid afternoon meetings with
friends, I shall make full use of my bus pass to travel the country visiting
loved ones young and old, I shall embrace new technology and wear colourful clothes
and outrageous earrings.
I remember reading the word vivacious for the first time in
an Enid Blyton book, when aged about eight. I asked my mother what it meant and
it’s a word I’ve loved ever since. It is the state to which I will aspire until
I inspire and expire my last breath.