Ageing is a hard time for us all. I use the word ‘us’ intentionally, as now or later, it is all of us. It is very hard to watch as one by one our powers weaken and abilities deteriorate, quickly or slowly. We may feel abandoned and sidelined by others whose attention is focused on getting on and achieving in a predominantly youth culture. Frequent health issues keep us concerned and occupied with medical matters. On top of that, there may be expectations from others, be it family, friends or society, that somehow we are there to look after them – whether it is aged parents or grandchildren, whether babysitting or giving away presents, money and possessions. And there is a struggle in relation to our role. Too often it is as pensioners who are ignored, dependent and rather useless, and at best do not cause young people too much trouble. Which tends, unfortunately to be the standard Western model.
But there is another possibility entirely: to arrive in old age skipping nor crawling. To be feisty, energetic, and full of the spice of life. To enjoy this time as a time of freedom from cares, freedom from ambitions, expectations, and concerns. To be delighted that we are not part of the endless race for success and achievement. To live lightly without too much thought of tomorrow. To appreciate all the life wisdom that we have accumulated and donate it freely to others, and usually receive in return the honour and appreciation due to us. To enjoy and share the memories and stories that we live by, and at the same time to be the holders of culture, and preserver of skills, values and ethics. To radiate steadiness and bring confidence to younger folk that have lost their way, and to be the ‘wise woman’ or the ‘tribal elder’.
If that is our aspiration, we have to start early. Ageing begins at birth. Its just that we don’t notice it as such. To age well we have to live well. It takes practice. If we spend our whole lives busy, ambitious, demanding, full of expectations and needs, it is not easy to switch channels in such a drastic way, and let go so completely and joyfully in older age. We have to practice letting go before that. In a way, since ageing is loss of powers, loss of capacities, and loss of many other things, there is dying in it – dying to what was and to our imagined needs, and to what we think we have and don’t want to lose. Practice then means practicing to die a bit during our life, to genuinely live with les grasping on to things and to life itself. One meditation teacher described this well after he contracted Alzheimer’s disease. He said : ‘You have got to get your dying done early’! On the level of mind and body, preparing for ageing well is about living with simplicity and harmony in relation to the world. If you look at the lifestyles of communities or individuals who tend to live a long time and are healthy and energetic into old age, they generally engage in physical work, are not overweight, eat little and regularly, don’t use industrial or processed food, and are not under stress or subject to a great many contagious diseases. Science backs this up, and confirms that one of the main ways that we can increase our lifespan and general health into old age is to eat less – to reduce the amount of calories and chemicals