Friday, 14 March 2014

A State of Mind

Feeling your age? How's this for encouragement?

  • In an article in the magazine Writing, I came across a little snippet called 'Never Give Up'. It's written by Prue Phillipson who says that she did not begin writing until she was in her sixties but had her 'real breakthrough' at 72. Since then she has had a novel on the go almost continuously and has had three published this year, her 85th! 
  • It's also been immensely inspiring to listen to the 80 and 90 year old members of the House of Lords interviewed on Woman's Hour. Today it was the turn of the mere 40 somethings. One of them said she found it quite awesome to think that she might have 50 years' service ahead!
  • George Bernard Shaw said, 'We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.'
  • A few years' ago I heard an interview with a woman who wanted to train as a solicitor. She was 52 and had been told that she was too old to make such a life change. Her interviewer (I can't remember who it was) said, 'Well if you think of it like this, you need to train for 3 years and then you have at least 10 years working life left, it doesn't seem impossible, does it?'
And, of course, today we are all conscious of the contribution to intellectual and political life made by Tony Benn right into his 85th year.

Ageing is partly a state of mind. It's a physiological process too and our mind needs to accommodate our physical abilities which include our mental capacities. I like these stories and the quote from GBS because they remind us to be positive about ageing. When we are younger, we tend to write off the part of life beyond 70 and this can become a habit we carry into our 60's and 70's. Yet many people have a good 20 or 30 years of activity after 60 which gives them the opportunity to learn new skills and practice them to great satisfaction whether for remuneration or not. Many people find that life is constrained in some ways but, I think, are not always encouraged to look for the activities they can learn and develop. I'd extend GBS's quotation to include learning. Curiosity is another great life enhancer. 

In my daily work I see people with quite severe limitations of their physical and mental capacity who nevertheless find interest in life. The three words that spring to mind that connect such people are playfulness, curiosity and laughter. People with a degree of dementia can enjoy not only the music making aspects of singing in a choir, but the community that the activity creates. People who cannot speak or move their hand very well can create works of art if someone with the skills takes the time to introduce them to the right kind of projects. People who cannot write can speak their memoirs into a dictaphone or tell wonderful stories if the right kind of audience can be found. 

I don't mean to paint an unrealistically glowing picture of ageing. It's a struggle for most people. But the greatest enemy of a fulfilling old age is, it seems to me, isolation, or at least unchosen isolation. So much that is positive can be shared and achieved in a community of care where there is a fluidity and reciprocity between those who give the care and those who receive it. This week, I've learned about fish tanks from an 80 year old, silk painting from a 70 year old and received insight into one of my own concerns from a 92 year old (who wouldn't have known that she had given me that particular gift.) I've heard stories of memorable moments with grandchildren (who will probably recall some of them for life) and witnessed an octogenarian giving life-changing support to her own son. Can we become a society that knows how to celebrate old age and welcome it as the harbinger of the wisdom born of the long perspective? How much better this would be than than fearing old age it and talking down its potential, colluding with a spiral of unwarranted despair. According to psychologist Laura  Carstensen (Stanford University) emotional stability and happiness tend to be higher in old age. Being conscious of mortality, people show a tendency to value each each moment of happiness and  contentment. Read about it here 


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