Reflections on the art of aging

How can we shape age meaningful?

by Rita Brügger

A school class has arrived at the museum. The children behave in a disciplined way. Nevertheless, a certain hectic is noticeable. Obviously, they have received orders from the teacher what to explore. Some work in pairs on tablets and fill in questionnaires, others work with devices that are supposed to help children to understand the exhibition. Laughing children look at their mobile phones to immortalise themselves in a selfie. The seriousness of the exhibition about a truly threatening period of our history is not grasped by many young people. But wait! There is an elderly gentleman, who obviously comes from a different culture, sitting next to a student, and explains to him calmly and with plain language the facts and background of the impressive picture they are looking at together.

The grandfather passes on his experience to his grandson. (picture keystone)

A little later, a similar scene presents itself at the pier. There, a group of children is waiting for the next boat. Some have taken off their shoes and socks, the teachers remind them to pack their rucksacks as the boat will soon reach the jetty. Meanwhile, an elderly gentleman is sitting on a bench with a small group of boys. He tells them something. He quietly turns to the boys. They seem interested in what he has got to tell them. A lively dialogue develops between old and young, directly relating to one another. It is a pleasing image and touches random onlookers.
Obviously, the two gentlemen are part of the project “Seniors in the classroom”, which has been launched by Pro Senectute and incorporated by many teachers. How beneficial it is when older people support the classes, thus contributing their wealth of experience in a positive way.

Acting with ease

In fact, there are countless fields of activity for senior citizens today. The often strenuous work process is behind them. They have handed over responsibility in work and family to younger people. However, doing nothing is not an option, and so many pensioners are looking for new fields of activity. This is done on a voluntary basis and can be done with much more ease than in younger years. Men often prefer technical challenges. As Red Cross drivers, for example, they can continue to exert their driving skills and offer them to people who are less mobile than they are. In addition, these services may include many interesting encounters.
Those who are experienced in sports or culture contribute their knowledge and skills to a wide range of leisure activities: bird watching expeditions, guided tours in museums, as biking and hiking group leaders: this is just a small selection. In addition, senior citizens’ advice in various fields is taken gladly too.
Whereas in younger years there was hardly any time for anything else due to a strenuous working day and bringing up children, now there is also a field of activity in commissions and organisations. The commune is happy about a former bank clerc who assists the finance commission to keep the budget in balance. The tax expert contributes, if necessary, to fill in forms. The Swiss internet portal “Rent a Rentner” offers a variety of activities for which active pensioners can be requested.

Grandparents

A real blessing is the attention and affection grandparents give to their grandchildren. Some families have the opportunity of handing over their children to grandparental care on a regular basis. Or children experience grandma and grandpa during their holidays and enjoy that the grandparents have time for them to show and explain things they don’t know much about. The grandmother might talk about how hard she had to work as a child at home, what she had to make do without because there was not much money, but that children could play without any dangers on the streets. And grandfather knows so many flowers you can see while hiking, and he tells about the camp in the mountains with his youth group.
Grandparents can muster ease and calmness. They brought-up their own children, taking full responsibility. How will he or she develop, what will become of them? These questions preoccupied them as parents for many years. Fathers saw little of their own children, maybe in the evenings or on weekends. Now they have time for their grandchildren, and everyone appreciates being together as a family. Young and old complement each other fruitfully.

Illness, pain and parting

Of course, age is not just sunshine and roses. Admittedly, there are some sprightly seniors who are able to manage their daily life even into old age. In the morning they regularly do gymnastics, go shopping, cook, go for walks and travel, either in the vicinity or even to faraway countries.
But not everyone is granted to live in good health. There is a saying: If you are over 50, wake up in the morning and nothing hurts, then you are dead. And in fact, most people have minor problems here and there. In the bathroom you realise that there is more to anoint and care for in the evening. The skin becomes drier and the mouth needs more moisture. When climbing stairs one is out of breath faster and it is advisable to go downstairs carefully. One or the other also has to struggle with major health problems, which are not easy to cope with. And if you are seriously ill, the healing takes longer than in earlier years.
Even though great progress has been made in medicine in recent decades, there are still diseases that inflict pain or even lead to death. As the years go by, the body becomes more susceptible, and vigours gradually weaken. This is a grievous, often painful process. One becomes more aware of one’s own finiteness and that of close people.
Finally, it is a reality: it is a matter parting from one’s loved ones, and at some point one’s own life comes to an end. This is also a farewell.

Dealing with age

When it comes to old age, you can sometimes hear: “You should not reach such a high age!” Why not? Does only the troublesome weigh in? Does age only bring negative things? The fear of becoming destitute at the end of one’s life, of being lonely, of having to suffer seems to be widespread. Articles and commentaries come more frequent, that fundamentally question the validity of life of older people, so that they feel almost pressed to question their own right to live. There are voices that even want to deny the elderly the right to vote. An affront to all that has been achieved by a generation that has given its very best.
However, there are also many encouraging aspects, and just recently, some interesting publications on the subject have been released. The book “Gutes Leben im Alter. Die Philosophischen Grundlagen”, (“A good life in old age, philosophical fundamental principles”) published by Reclam Verlag 2012, shows from Plato to Schopenhauer to the present it features what philosophers thought and think about it in order to give answers on how to shape the last phase of life well and even meaningful. Interestingly, there are often hundreds or even thousands of years between the individual authors quoted in the book but often the considerations and insights correspond. It is an interesting historical outline on the topic of old age.

Learn to grow old

One of today’s philosophers represented in this book is Otfried Höffe. In 2018 he published his own book entitled “Die hohe Kunst des Alterns, kleine Philosophie des guten Lebens”, (“The grand arts of aging, a small philosophy of a good life”) published by C. H. Beck. The book, which is easy to read, is like a small guidance on how to prepare for old age and what it takes to create and live a dignified, even happy old age to the end.
 Höffe says that aging can be learned. He mentions and describes the four “L’s”, Laufen, Lernen, Lieben, Lachen; running, learning, loving, laughing as something important. By running he means physical activities which can be very varied and enable the body to stay healthy for as long as possible.
Höffe confirms the saying “mens sana in corpore sano” and says that a healthy body and a healthy mind determine one another and contribute greatly to a good old age. The author is convinced that those who educate themselves, read, travel, learn a language or play music, broaden their horizons, keep their minds alert and thus prevent vexation and stress.
“The third L, loving, is about the varied range of social relationships beginning with the close partnership, continuing to kinship and acquaintance and do not end with participation in sports clubs, orchestras, choirs and hiking groups.” (Höffe, p. 99)
And the author expands the fourth “L”, for laughter, in such a way that he attaches great importance to the whole feeling of relaxation, joy of life, i.e. the positive attitude towards life, in order to fight against bitterness and grief.
However, Höffe points out, that the importance of these four “L’s” is not limited to age alone, indeed that it is good to deal with them early on, probably in order to have a rucksack full of useful things ready in old age. He also impressively describes how important one’s attitude to old age is when you are still young. Honouring old age is a social duty that can be found in almost all cultures.

Prevention

Höffe also quotes other philosophers in his book. For example, Voltaire: “For the ignorant, age is like winter; for scholars, it is grape harvest”, a thoroughly positive way of looking at things. Ernst Bloch believes that it is worthwhile to make intellectual investments while in youth, which one can fall back on in old age.
The proverb “There is no fool like an old fool” is just as true as: “Woe betide him who does not age in the protection of love”.
In Höffe’s book there are chapters dealing with diseases, dementia and dying. What is interesting is the aspect emphasised by Socrates that dying is strongly connected with life. So, according to him one should lead a righteous life and ask oneself less the question of the “right” way to die, but rather the question: How do we want to live?
In order not to become lonely in old age, it is necessary to cultivate one’s relationships throughout one’s life. It becomes apparent that those who have cared for their family throughout their lives, who have practiced humanity and readiness to help, rarely remain alone at the end of their lives.

Diversity

Like every period of life, the last phase of life holds a variety of facets. There are some very particular characters, difficult fellow human beings, quirky ones and dissatisfied ones. And apart from the very fit, active senior citizens, there are many who lose their strength and have to struggle with the impassable.
The book “Schöne Aussichten! Über Lebenskunst im hohen Alter” (Good prospects! On the Art of Living in Old Age) Schwabe-Verlag (from Schwabe Verlag), by photographer Ursula Markus and author Paula Lanfranconi is a wonderful compilation impressively portraying the lives of men and women over 80. It presents a wide variety of life stories. There is the former banker and philanthropist, the adventurous woman, the pacifist and writer of letters-to-the-editor, the woman aesthete and the rebellious farmer who does not want to leave his ramshackle farm under any circumstances.
All these personalities have one thing in common: they have a purpose in life and an objective in mind. When asked what keeps them alive or how they cope with old age or endure pain, one reads amazing answers: “You are gradually growing into old age” or: “You learn to suffer. ... Never slacken off, otherwise it hurts even more.” Ms R. says that it is important for her to deal with every new situation. This also includes accepting that certain things are no longer possible. Ms H. says: “I am healthy, because I can deal with my diseases.”And the positive attitude is also  expressed by Mr S.: “I never asked why me? I always made the best of it.”

In spite of everything or precisely because of it?

“Age is not a disease”, says the book by Otfried Höffe. How true this is. And if an elderly person even finds a task in one area or another that he can perform to his own satisfaction and for the good of all, then this is a great blessing for everyone.
On her 90th birthday, Frieda receives a large congratulation card with about 50 signatures from the nearby retirement home. Every week gets ready the mat and the deck of cards and helps to serve coffee and cake for all the residents of the home enjoying a card game. Of course, she always clears up the dishes afterwards. Paul plays the organ as a relieve organist on Sundays, public holidays and funeral services and often goes to church for this purpose early in the morning. This commitment keeps the now over 90 year old surprisingly vital, although he has to struggle with health problems. Maria, who lost her mobility and has a paralyzed arm due to a stroke, feeds a fellow patient in the day-care centre who can no longer move his hands. Even Nora, the terminally ill elderly lady, whose powers no longer permit any activities, has something to give: she listens, takes part in what is happening and livens up with it.
What about those old people who seem to vegetate joylessly, filled with bitterness waiting for release? Perhaps they have not yet found a fellow human being who can give them some consolation and affection.    •