It is important not to romanticise the past and imagine that there was a golden age in which it was wonderful to be an old person, an elder. As the historian Sir Keith Thomas, deservedly a Companion of Honour, described in book on the history of witchcraft titled Religion and the Decline of Magic. The historical truth is that poor old people were often pushed out because their family simply could not afford to feed them. Rich people stayed in positions of power, often because they were afraid of what might happen to them if they passed on power to their family, after holding on to it for too long – the play King Lear described the fate that followed all too clearly.
The psychological changes that are sometimes associated with growing old are usually negative. “Old people” or, even worse, “the elderly” are portrayed as being slow, cautious, and reactionary and many people have come to accept that this is as much a part of the ageing process as white hair. It is not. By that we mean that not only that it is not a part of normal ageing, but we also mean, and emphasise, that the person who reaches the age of seventy has to decide.
- “Will I go along with the stereotype of an old person?”
- “Do I accept that what other people call caution I call wisdom from experience and I am going to use the mind space freed up from work to learn some new skill or help other people or both?”
What you can do?
The advice we gave on brain maintenance is relevant to the mind also. Intellectual activity can help both mind and brain but because other peoples‘ beliefs about growing old can have an impact on even the most optimistic person it is essential to take action.
Never use the word ‘old’ or say you are growing old or that you are getting older. Say you have you have lived for longer and that brings benefits. Useful things to remember about having lived longer are
- I have more experience
- I have tackled more problems, some successfully, some unsuccessfully but I have had more opportunities to learn
- I don’t make decisions too quickly
- I am less ambitious for myself. I want to help the next generation.
Mindfulness is a hot new approach in psychology. It has been defined by the person who has done most to develop it as
- “the awareness that emerges through paying attention, in the present and non-judgementally, to things as they are at present.” Many people spend too much time worrying about the future and going over and over the problems of the past. It is prudent to think about future problems, and how their risk can be reduced. It is natural to reflect on what has happened, good or bad, but not to spend one’s whole time grieving and worrying. You need to create time at lest once a day to focus on the present and its good points. This is not to say that you need to adapt a Pollyanna like approach of ignoring past or future problems but once or, better, twice a day just make ten minutes to
- sit, upright, but comfortable, feet on the floor and focus on the present.
- Look at the sky or your garden
- Concentrate on every breath.
- Put your hands on your knees and feel the weight of your arms on your lower limbs.
The best method is to search for Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University or the Oxford Mindfulness Centre on the web. His site has many free resources to help you learn the techniques of mindfulness, and has links to the handbooks.
Be active, socially mentally and physically
Learning new skills, or improving old ones, is good for the mind. The sense of challenge and achievement is very good for the mind and so too is physical activity.
Be active socially, the evidence that helping other people also helps oneself is strong and getting stronger. People in their seventies have learned many things and have a lot to give. Already voluntary services are often led, and depend on, people in their seventies are too modest. They assume they have nothing to contribute apart from their money, but this is not the case. Acting as a volunteer either for face to face work with people in the community in which you live or with people in a village in Asia or Africa who you will never see is of great importance not only to those people who receive help but also those who offer it.
Be active physically; the evidence that physical activity is good for the mind as well as the body is getting stronger. Physical activity includes adopting the right posture, erect and without a stoop, as well as activities designed to increase strength, stamina, suppleness and skill. The programme that we propose for physical fitness will also help your mind but remember, in the words of Jean Paul Sartre – “the mind is its own place and can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of hell”.