Do any of us really know how to grow old well? It is not something we can learn or train for. And what is the definition of ‘old’ these days? It seems to be a relative concept which varies a lot.
At what age can a person be considered old?
In Australia, the answer is about 66 years. But whoever you ask will give you a different answer. Because the response will always be subjective.
There is no precise definition of old. But the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) groups people into population age cohorts. It differentiates between ‘15–64’, ‘65 years and over’ and ‘85 years and over’. So people over 65 are generally classified as ‘older’ for ABS purposes.
Are you really only as old as you feel?
There are indications that ‘older’ is a fluid state. Many people hold to the view that ‘age is just a number’ and that the important determinants are how we feel physically and mentally.
In Australia, the current retirement age is 66 or 67. However this is expected to rise over the next few years. The government is also pushing for older people to remain in the work force for longer. So even the government is adjusting its view as to what it considers to be ‘old’.
A research firm’s survey found that Australians perceive old age as starting about the time they can begin receiving the age pension. Which is currently 66. The survey also found that the perception of old age changes as you age. This means that the older you get, the more likely you are to feel younger.
We constantly read and hear that the proportion of Australians aged 65 or over is steadily increasing and that life expectancy for Australians continues to trend upwards. This demographic does not apply only to Australia. It is a world-wide trend in most developed countries. This reflects the medical advances, understanding of disease prevention and generally improved lifestyle in our society. All these contribute to keeping us healthier and fitter for longer.
How are older people portrayed by the media and society in general?
This is interesting. Because despite the fact that people are living and working longer we know that the media continues to persist with ageist stereotypes.
Computer literacy is a good example. Many of us have certainly had to struggle to adapt to modern technology. But the reality is that a lot of older people are able to use computers quite well. Probably because we have had to keep up or risk being left behind. The same goes for smart phones. And social media platforms. Over 1.2 million Australians 65 and over use Facebook. And a population considered ‘old’ is a significant market segment for YouTube.
So maybe it is time the media switched to depicting a more accurate image of ‘old’ people.
The art of growing older well
Whatever ‘old’ means to each of us, how do we face its undeniable challenges?
There has been much written and discussed in the last few years about ageing and managing end of life issues. ‘The Time of Our Lives: Growing Older Well’ by Robert Dessaix is a recently published book in this genre. Dessaix, who is 76 years old, is a highly acclaimed Australian novelist, essayist, journalist and intellectual.
His book is essentially a meditation and personal musings on the ageing process and old age. It provides a gentle guide and well considered advice on how we can best make that journey into, and through, our later years. It explores both the challenges and possibilities of old age.
The author suggests that we have probably been preparing for this stage of life without realising it. Maybe he is right. But what I do know, is that one day most of us look around and say to ourselves “where did all the years go”? And then we ask another question we have probably asked ourselves many times over the years but which takes on a different perspective as we age: “What really matters to me NOW?”
Happiness and Contentment
Dessaix wonders why so many people always look anxious. And why is there so much anger and even rage in our society, as well as all the people who are unhappy with their lives. As we get old, it seems to be fairly futile to chase an ideal of happiness that we unlikely to ever attain. Happiness can come in bursts but it is rarely sustained. But achieving a degree of contentment should be something within our grasp. If, we are able to fully accept who we are and acknowledge what is good in our lives.
What can we let go of as we age?
Believe it or not, there can be some upside to growing old. Apart from the obvious benefits such as the joys of grandchildren, having less responsibility and more free time. We can free ourselves from the earlier need to constantly compete, to measure up, to keep striving forward. We may no longer feel the need to adhere to conventions that once dominated our lives. Dessaix suggests that in old age, ‘nobody cares if you are keeping to the rules or not’. The sense of urgency that we felt about many things when younger may start to diminish and we start to care less about what other people think.
Nurturing the life of the mind
The main message of this book seems to be that having a rich inner life is the key to the art of growing older well. And that an abundant inner life is what will sustain us as we grow old. To help us to deal with old age and its associated discontents and avoid feelings of boredom and loneliness.
The author advises opening up to what surrounds us. Develop and maintain a curiosity about the world and appreciate what it feels like to be alive. Think about the meaning of time, family, religion, even art, in the context of growing old.
The goal is to cultivate an inner life that encompasses contentment as well as excitement. To be able to develop and maintain friendships. But also to enjoy solitude. And to be comfortable in our own company.
The things that matter
Developing a rich inner life seems to come down to having an ongoing conversation with yourself about the things that matter to you. And having a commitment to some sort of creativity.
The author recommends aiming for a sense of fulfilment rather than success. And as for chasing fame and money? Instead try developing an inner landscape that you can grow and nurture as you grow old. Find the things that are good in you, that are strong in you and cultivate them.
We have all experienced the satisfaction which comes from a sense of achievement. Of making progress, getting better at something. Even in small things. Like finishing a lesson in a textbook or online. Or improving a skill at playing a piece of music or in your favourite sport. Making a piece of art or craft work. Starting on your list of ‘must read’ books. Taking up a new hobby or interest - dancing, chess, cooking, a foreign language, voluntary work. Anything at all, in fact, if it nurtures your mind and inner life.
And most of all, Dessaix stresses the importance of friends and friendship.
We can accept that some things diminish in importance as we age. But some become even more essential and Dessaix’s view is, that friendship is what is most essential. He suggests we need to practise friendship in order to do it well. Which means starting sooner than later.
He adds the proviso that to have good friends you have to be friends with yourself first. Because by being your own friend you will attract other people as friends. And it probably helps if we try to have friends who are happy at whatever age they are!
This highly insightful book has been praised and well analysed in several professional reviews. This article reflects my interpretation and thoughts. For information on other aspects of end of life planning we invite you to visit us at Anticipate Life.