According to a recent report in the Daily Telegraph, old age does not now begin until one is 74 years old. For the anthropopper, that means he still has a few more years of late middle age until cheeky young whippersnappers can legitimately call him old. But that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t already begun to think about what it means to be old and how to prepare for it.
The experience of others hasn’t always been encouraging. Throughout the centuries, old age has held terrors for those approaching it. Here, for example, is the French poet, Pierre de Ronsard (1524 – 1585):
Ma douce jouvence est passée
Ma première force est cassée
J’ai la dent noire et le chef blanc
Mes nerfs sont dissous et mes veines
Tant j’ai le corps froid ne sont pleines
Que d’une eau rousse au lieu de sang
J’ai la tête toute étourdie
De trop d’ans et de maladies
De tous côtés le soin me mord
Et soit que j’aille ou que je tarde
Toujours après moi je regarde
Si je verrai venir la mort.
My sweet youth has passed
My former strength is broken
My teeth are black and my hair is white
My nerves have gone and the veins
In my cold body feel as though they’re full of
Thin red water rather than blood.
My head is hare-brained now
After too many years and illnesses.
On all sides cares come up to bite me
And, whether I go forward or hang back,
Always I look behind me
To see if death is coming.
Poor Ronsard was only 61 when death came to claim him. But his poem lives on and has been superbly set to music by the composer Jacques Leguerney; you can hear it sung here by the baritone Bruno Laplante.
In more recent times, the Hollywood actress Bette Davis (1908 – 1989) was quoted as saying: “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” She suffered much illness towards the end of her life and was speaking from bitter experience. The author Philip Roth put it even more strongly, in his novel Everyman: “Old age is not a battle. Old age is a massacre.”
As we age, our bodies become denser, drier, more fragile and start to lose flexibility. We become aware that that our vital functions don’t work as well as they used to do. Blood vessels, joints, the muscle and valves of the heart and even the lungs pick up substantial deposits of calcium and turn stiff. Our hair doesn’t grow as much as when we were younger, and ageing symptoms become more visible. Our strength diminishes, our mobility is reduced, we feel fatigue more rapidly. Sight and hearing begin to fail. Alongside these physical changes, our memory can become undependable and our mind may work more confusedly.
This reduction in our physical and mental powers can also involve us in further unhappy consequences. We retire from our job, and if we have not been able to build up savings or a personal pension, our income becomes so much reduced that we may find ourselves living at little more than subsistence level on a state pension. And yet worse things can happen during this period. We may lose our life-companion; our children might move away or forget us; our friends die off. We can become isolated and lonely.
And then there is a big change: it may come through a sudden medical emergency or it may be a long, slow decline, but there is an unquestionable, inescapable crisis awaiting us in the business of living. The ebbing of the life forces means that the daily chores of shopping, cooking meals, cleaning and physical hygiene become ever more strenuous until one reaches the stage where one cannot do it anymore and neglect begins to creep in. We are leaving behind what has been the normal, natural self-dependence of the main part of our adult life and entering upon the dependence on other people that basically characterises old age. One can see why Bette Davis concluded that old age was no place for sissies.
This all sounds quite grim, and can indeed be so. But what it leaves out are the soul and spiritual qualities of the human being. From an anthroposophical perspective, old age – like childhood, youth and adulthood – is a phase of life in which certain developmental processes take place. Old age and early childhood can be compared. The spiritual being of the child still only surrounds and does not yet penetrate the physical body, and because of this we feel the child is near to the spiritual world from which it recently came. This is part of the reason for the feeling of protectiveness which it draws out in us. In elderly people the spiritual forces are withdrawing from the physical body and also surround it, so that old people, too, are near to the spiritual world to which they will soon return. In both children and old people we can see a certain helplessness and clumsiness because they have not yet, or have no longer, the power in their limbs possessed by the fully incarnated adult. Yet though the bodily forces diminish in old age, there are still positive developments to discover as we prepare for excarnation.
Looking at the life forces in old age, one can see that, as they become freer from predominantly physical tasks, they can be used in the service of further development of thinking. The famous Japanese painter Hokkaido declared that everything he did before he was 73 was quite worthless. Titian painted his most powerful works when he was almost 100. Verdi composed Falstaff – his last, and one of his best operas – as he was approaching the age of 80. It seems likely that they were able to do these things because, with increasing age, the path that leads inwards progresses on and on, while what is going on in the outside world becomes less important and everyday events become less interesting. As we age, greater insights arise concerning the big questions of life and a new understanding emerges as to what is essential, and what no longer matters.
The wisdom which comes to many people with old age can also be of benefit to younger people. A good example of this is the tribute written here for the late Nick Thomas by a pupil. Such wisdom in the third and last phase of our life can be seen as the “fruit” of having lived consciously, while continuing to work on oneself and cultivating an active inner life. But a fruit also contains the seeds, which is actually what is happening to us in old age: we are developing desires and motives for a new life, with the intent to find balance for the past chapters.
Neither we as individuals nor society as a whole are very good at providing the circumstances in which these more positive aspects of old age can come to fruition. There is a kind of transitional stage, which for most people is likely to be somewhere between the ages of 75 – 85. Before this stage most people are still independent, while beyond it most are either partially or totally dependent on help. We are reluctant to prepare ourselves for this gradual or sudden loss of independence. Perhaps we are not very realistic about assessing our position, or perhaps the idea of anything less than the complete independence we have got used to during our adult life is intolerable. But gradually, (and there are of course a few exceptional cases of people who can manage on their own into their late 80s or even 90s), for most of us a mild or total dependence on others comes about. All this can be regarded as an expression of the fact that in old age the astral body (Soul) is becoming loosened from the physical body and the ego (Self) is gradually withdrawing from the earthly realm. *
As our ability to be independent fades, we look to others for help. Such help was traditionally supplied by the family, but that is becoming unusual in today’s social conditions. Usually what happens is that we go into a care home or a nursing home. The prosperity of society in the West has enabled even the poor to expect such homes to provide nutritious meals, professional health services, physical therapy, bingo and a lounge with a television on at all times. These homes have eased old age for millions of people and made proper care and safety a norm to an extent that would have been unimaginable a few generations ago. Yet, still, most of us consider modern old age homes to be frightening, desolate and undesirable places in which to spend the last phase of our lives. We need and desire something better.
According to Dr Atul Gawande, in his book Being Mortal, in which he deplores the emphasis on the medicalisation of old age, “this is the consequence of a society that faces the final phase of the human life cycle by trying not to think about it. We end up with institutions that address any number of societal goals – from freeing up hospital beds to taking burdens off families’ hands to coping with poverty among the elderly – but never the goal that matters to the people who reside in them: how to make life worth living when we’re weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves any more.”
We can and should do better than this. It should be a matter of the greatest importance that old people are supported by a community in which there lives an understanding for the aspects of soul and spirit as well as physical care. Maybe old people do not need more care-giving, but greater understanding for the role of old age and its mission. The homes in which old people live should be centres of culture, with lectures, musical evenings, creative courses and opportunities for the residents themselves to contribute their own gifts. We all need a purpose, and a sense of being needed – and there should also be opportunities for inter-generational contacts from which both young and old can benefit.
In the second part of this post, I will write about some encouraging examples of such communities, including one which is being planned for Emerson College in the UK.
* Rudolf Steiner’s view of the human being includes the idea that each of us has four bodies (the physical, and three non-physical “bodies”: the etheric, or life body, the astral body or Soul and a fourth one, called the ego or Self. The etheric body is essentially an energy body that contains and forms the physical. It is this etheric body which maintains the physical body’s form until death. The astral body (Soul) provides us with awareness and self-awareness, our emotions and our feelings and intentions. The ego or Self is the immortal and inalienable core of a human being, which goes with us from one incarnation to the next. There are another three bodies in potential – the spirit self, the life spirit and spirit man – which are to come to full development in later stages of human evolution.