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Articles & Essays

Growing old

I neglected to post abut an article I had in April’s Psychologies magazine about ageing. It’s not available online, but here’s a decent chunk of it.

Even some of the aspects of ageing that we usually lament might not be all bad. Consider sex and libido. “You can’t make love at eighty the way you did at twenty — so what?” said the American philosopher Cornel West. “Does that make you a failure? Hell no!”

Perhaps we should even see the retreat of libido as a positive. “How comforting it is to have tired out one’s appetites, and to have done with them!” wrote Seneca in a letter on ageing that should be issued to every pensioner with her bus pass. In Plato’s Republic, the old poet Sophocles is quoted as saying, “I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.” Far from being an affliction, the decline of desire is seen as offering a “great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold.”

Even failing memory can be accepted as par for the course. People who can joke about their “senior moments” seem to me to be much more at ease with themselves than those who take every lapse as signs of encroaching dementia.

One of the worst curses of age is regret. Every proverb, saying or quotation on the subject may tell us that it is a waste of time, but it can be hard to put the advice into practice. It can help to remind ourselves that we simply don’t know whether things would have been better had they turned out the way we wanted them to. Montaigne, for instance, confessed that once he had desired “to have a son-in-law that knew handsomely how to cherish my old age, and to rock it asleep.” But he soon realised that “we live in a world where loyalty of one’s own children is unknown,” which is even truer today than it was back in the sixteenth century.

If we’re honest, we need to accept that some aspects of decay and decline have no redeeming features. Even so, we should remember that those hobbling along on dodgy hips are lucky to have got that far. Long life is not something we have any right to expect, and should we be granted it, to then complain that it’s not as comfortable as we’d like it to be is somewhat churlish. It was only after the second world war that most people lived beyond their half century, and even today, millions don’t make it that far. Everyone reading this will know at least one person, and probably many more, who were taken prematurely by accident or illness. The best way to respect their memory is to cherish each day we have, remembering how fortunate we are to have the irritations of age to grumble about.

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