Growing Old Gracefully

My uncle Harold died in his nineties.  He’d always looked good.  His hair had kept its’ colour and he was proud of the fact that even at that age he still had a girlfriend, a girlfriend who was a swedish model, in fact.  At the time he died I’d just come back from India and moved down to Brighton and wasn’t getting too involved in the more opinionated and right-wing side  of my family.  I think I might have just missed his funeral when I was away.  There were a rash of them at about that time, as the generation above my mothers all started dying in apparent unison.   My mother was frequently going down to  Brighton and returning with shocking stories of funerals where the distant relatives organizing them had been too mean to hire an ecclesiastical figure and the entire service consisted of a group of people, gathered in a soothing room,  to silently watch a coffin slide behind a curtain.

They all lived a long time, although Harold was the only one who had kept his hair colour, or for that matter had a swedish model girlfriend.  As he was dying and still bullshitting away, he gave my mother some advice ‘Don’t hang around with old people, hang around with people younger than you.’  Despite the fact that he so obviously dyed his hair,  and that his swedish model girlfriend was actually in her sixties and the modelling had happened a loooong time ago, I regard  his advice as worth listening to.  He was a regular down at his local until the end.  He lived a long healthy life.  He didn’t look his age.  He put the effort in, but it worked for him.  And I think he’d sussed something important out.

I’ve just entered my forties.  This is a comfortable space for me, I’m in my early forties.  I’ll be there for another year or so then I’m forty five and it gets a bit scarier.  Then I’m in my late forties and heading very definitely towards fifty.  Second by second this is where I’m going.  So the question of how one ages well is becoming somewhat more pressing.  People in their thirties are looking worryingly youthful and I find myself ‘remembering how it was at their age’ .Only a bit, but I do.

People in their twenties frankly, look unnaturally youthful. A bit like something that’s just  hatched from an egg, with soft perfect skin and full heads of hair.

It’s  a bit disconcerting being around them. I’m about the right age, they’re too young, people who are older are too old.

Something that I frequently hear and actively question in the clinic are sentences that end with the qualifier ‘ my age’: ‘I feel good for my age’, ‘she’s doing well, for her age’ ‘I suppose this is what you expect, at my age’.   There’s an implicit existential regret to this which sets up it’s own resonances in the body and mind.  More importantly it’s making a statement expectation and self-definition.  The expectation is that there will be limitations imposed by age.

This kind of expectation very quickly translates into physical constraint.  You don’t do anything about back pain because it is an accepted part of physical experience ‘at your age’.  You’re moving around less anyway because your peer group moves around less. They don’t go clubbing, or wandering in groups around city centres at night.  They sit at home watching the TV in the evenings.  They drive everywhere. They don’t because that’s not what people do ‘at their age’ and because they’re in pain of one kind or another.  Pain is tiring, and gets worse if you don’t move around.  Bodies degenerate if they’re not used, so immobilizing pain tends to be self-perpetuating.  If you don’t seek any kind of intervention and sit about with back pain, assuming that this is how it will always be from now on, the chances are that it will be.

This is a clip of a man of over ninety doing bagua.    It’s slightly grainy footage, but he’s clearly been doing it for a while and with good teachers.  He is a little careful going into the somersaults section of the form but otherwise he is moving better than most people in their twenties. He clearly isn’t going with the idea of  age as a physical handicap.  When he’s had pain and injury he’s kept on moving.

A lot of older people would benefit from doing a bit of bagua.  They probably wouldn’t benefit so much from wandering around town centres at night in groups or clubbing because those are activities from another time in life.  That era when your bedrock  conviction is that you’re the some kind of’ personality’ and very important., but you are plagued by nagging doubts.  So you go out and explore the situation on alcohol with other ‘personalities’ and aim for the best weekend ever, every Friday and Saturday night.   I’ve done both these activities to death and there are limited possibilities.  They do get boring.  Once in a blue moon? Sure why not, but mainly I like to get up early  and I hate losing a day to a hangover.  I hit a point a few years ago when I could taste the hangover that night and from hard experience know exactly what I’m letting myself in for.  There was a time when I couldn’t see beyond Saturday night.  Saturday night was when the world ended and Sunday was when I picked up whatever pieces were left and started again.  Now I don’t feel that way.  I can’t be bothered with it because I value my Sundays.

Clearly you do change in life, you have experienced more, you’ve grown. Your jing, DNA constitutional endowment has transmuted to shen, life experience.  To someone in their twenties my approach would look boring and old.  But I would contend that in this instance, I have become wiser.

It’s very important to watch the narrative by which you live.  To watch your assumptions and the assumptions of people around you and wider society.  Taoism is based on the notion of life being about endless possibilities. Kids wandering around a town centre on Saturday night still largely have that. Older people at home in front of the telly, largely don’t.

Be wary of doctors.  Doctors will look at you in terms of your age and prescribe you pills for it.  Lots of pills.  Statins and NSAIDS, Lanzoprazole, Zantac, ace inhibitors.  Some of these pills are ‘just in case’.  Some of the pills are to help with the side effects of the other pills.  Some of my older patients rattle audibly when they walk.

Western medicine is at it’s worst when it ‘treats’ a natural phase of human life.  childhood, pregnancy, the menopause and old age.  It’s just not gentle enough.  A doctor in this instance will reinforce societies perspective on old age.  She will tell you this is normal, that you’re getting older and essentially must expect to become ill; then become more and more ill, until you die.  She will wear a white coat and sound like she knows what she is talking about.  You will believe her because she’s a doctor and everybody believes doctors. Anyway this is what everybody else says and all your friends are ill in the same way.

She will give you pills, they will make you sick.

There is a great deal of money to be made out of selling medicines to older people.

Stay away, unless you’re sick.  So knowing when you’re sick is the issue. You need to know your body well , something which older people tend to because they’ve been in it for a very long time. But being able to really feel your body and mind is tricky.  I think in this culture there is a tendency to give up on the body as it progressively lets you down. Go the other way. To do this you have to depart from the perspectives of a wider society and learn and change. Keep moving emotionally as well as physically.

Learn to work within your capacities, learn to know when you’re tired.

Of course you’ll need to do different things at different stages of life. If you live a life of hard partying you will tend to die younger.  Yes really.  That’s in chapter one of the Yellow Emperors Classic [a big chinese medical text].  More importantly, is hard partying  living in integrity with yourself, people around you and your life path? Are you trying to avoid the issues and refusing to change?

Do some yoga, learn to meditate, do some feldenkrais, alexander technique,bagua or tai chi or some such.  They’ll help you feel more because they’re all based on observing the body. Meditation observes and questions emotional patterns. Yoga and tai chi/bagua are about questioning movement patterns.

They’re different, interesting things to do.

They stop you moving around like an old person, which is quite important.  There was a schizophrenic man who lived in Hove who was well-known in the area as the man who talked to buses.  He’d also jump in and help you park  if you were having trouble which was good, up to the point he encouraged you to back into the car behind you. A local character.  He moved like a much younger man.  He’d walk long distances as a way of coping with whatever he was coping with.  He could dance like someone in their twenties.  I saw him cutting a rug in the street  outside some crappy club-pub one night and he was simply beautiful.  He wasn’t working with the societal programming around movement, he was  [apparently] talking to a poster of Mike Tyson he had on the wall of his bed sit of an evening.  Societal programming wasn’t happening to him.

You don’t have to become a bus-loving schizophrenic to question movement. You do have to stay flexible emotionally.  You have to question terms like ‘for your age’,  If you hold your body in the way old people archetypally do then your skull will press down on your heart, your kidneys will be compressed by the rising of your sacrum.  Your digestive system will be placed under pressure from the upper body and the spine curving in.  Your balance will be poorer, your breathing will be degraded with a knock on impact across your whole system.  Your blood flow will be compromised.

When we were taught Chinese medicine we were told that old age was about the gradual expenditure of the core energy of your body until it was gone and you died.  In western terms this would be like DNA, but almost as a finite reserve.

A more recent perspective, albeit one based on the observations of eighteenth century practitioners, is the idea of your blood stagnating.  So translate that as arteriosclerosis, clotting blood leading to thrombosis, infarction and stroke.  All of which makes more sense in western medical terms.

What causes your blood to stagnate? Fundamentally, excessive emotional rigidity. Very strongly fixed notions about what life is about, who you are and what you may expect from it all and loss of the capacity to change and see lifes’ novelty.   Being unable to change, when change is imperative.

Some inflexibility in outlook is inevitable because without it we have no emotional structure. There would be no basis on which to build levels of emotional sophistication.  Wisdom would be impossible. Too much and life has nothing new to offer you.

Looking at the way older people habitually hold their bodies they are retreating into themselves and away from the world.  Their legs contact with the ground becomes poorer, their chest collapses in and their heads hang forward.  They lose strength in their arms.

Life is basically a movement from:

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?”

‘Well maybe a train driver or a doctor or a vet or maybe a farmer or I just don’t know”

To “ I live in Patcham and like it , I drive a Lexus, I wear a lot of beige and don’t like to go into town because it’s too busy and teenagers  frankly worry me”

Some sort of happy medium between these positions would be the ideal.

Uncle Harold clearly avoided playing out assumptions about his age.  He avoided contact with his peer group who were living in the social construct of advanced years.  They lived in the emotional situation of the elderly, they embodied the social construct  of old age and socializing with them would mean sharing their values, world view and moving in the same way as them; so not very much, slowly, and in places like Damart and Worthing tea shops rather than his local on Edward Street.  Living where he did, he benefitted from the gay scene in Brighton where the usual rules of where-older-people-may-comfortably-socialize are by necessity somewhat different, much as this might have annoyed him to think so.

So don’t hang around with the avowedly old, keep up with the world and don’t sit around.  Don’t work on assumptions about your capacities and your age. Explore the edges of them as much as you can.  Don’t buy the program and be wary of the doctor.  And love life…. I mean I think that’s the key, even the bad stuff, strange as that may seem.

Just love it all as much as you can.