The ‘how to grow old’ question is not unlike others that are posed in relation to other complex life issues,i.e., ‘how to parent well’’, ‘how to find the ideal lover/life partner’, ‘how to cope with being a teenager’, a young adult, someone who has reached mid life’? The list goes on and on.
It’s a big mistake to think that just because the question appears straight forward the answer will also be simple and, indeed, is even answerable. Highly paid barristers and other legal professionals, politicians, those engaged in commerce, often use this assumption for their gain but the fact is, there are many aspects of life that just can’t be reduced to single, answerable questions. Socrates believed that to engage with complexity through endless interrogation, thought and discussion or debate, even where the absolute and definitive answer is unlikely, was a basic human duty and virtue.
So back to the topic of growing old; we hear a lot about the negative aspects of old age, such as poor health, deteriorating cognitive, social and physical capacities, narrow, parochial and judgemental attitudes and insufficient resources in general, in our popular culture. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise because, after all, the majority of people with voice and influence in modern media are not members of the 65 years plus group, even though this same age band accounts for about 18% of the whole population in the UK. In addition, there are huge industries that stand to gain from either pathologising age or channelling an anodyne, sentimental and patronising version of it.
It is possible to find more positive perspectives but you have to search wider, for example, in Okinawa in Japan, there is place known as the village of longevity. It’s actual name is Ogimi and longitudinal data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests that between 1960 and 2000, average life expectancy has risen from about 75 years to 85 years, which means some of the most long-living people in the world can be found here. In their book ‘Ikigai, The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life’, Garcia and Miralles (2017) summarise the themes they discovered when interviewing some of the very oldest inhabitants of Ogimi:
Staying active – engaging in activities that are meaningful and valuable to the individual and the community
Connection with others
Pace, i.e., living not too fast but not too slow either and being fully in the moment
Eating modestly, exercising regularly
Smiling and aiming ‘to be happy
In an ideal world there would be much more focus on the positive and constructive aspects of ageing and individuals who characterise eudaimonia, also spelled eudaemonia , would be recognised and celebrated. This word comes from Aristotelian ethics and describes the condition of human flourishing or of living well. People of age who possess this virtue, share experience, knowledge and wisdom, offer hopeful and positive role models and emotional balance.
The eudaimonic style of ageing, that is beneficial to self and others is everywhere, if you look for it. There are many older people who live independent and self sufficient lives, work hard to stay fit and healthy and manage their own affairs and what is more they don’t necessarily live in remote communities but are everywhere.
In my research on this topic of how to grow old I came across a number of organisations and this raised other questions such as ‘is the answer to ageing well best addressed and managed at an official and publicly funded level? I will spend more time thinking about that and write more in my next post in this series.