About Old Age
The perception from the inside – descriptively and prescriptively
Cicero’s “De Senectute” and Plato in a modern view
Advice to caregivers
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Life can be compared to a trajectory. After the rise in childhood (possibly to age 15), a phase of further building of life’s substance follows (possibly from age 15 to 30). Then comes the long plateau of the middle of life (possibly from age 30 to 60), followed by a gentle decline (possibly from age 60 to 75). This decline becomes more noticeable (usually after age 75) and leads to the end of life (mostly before age 90). Specifically, the time after age 80 can be described as “old age”. Some people, however, demonstrate that neither their actual intellectual interests nor the life dimension (or parameter) of “wisdom” show such decline, but may rather show some continuity, even further progress, late in life – in struggle with physical decline.
How do people feel while they immutably progress – as on a conveyor belt – finding themselves advancing within those age phases and from phase to phase? Specifically, how does the phase of late “old age”, after 80, look from the inside out? Autobiographies are written before people turn very old. Consequently, they do not describe the actual inside experience of “old age”. But many of us (if not most) and those close to us do or will go through that special phase of life’s completion. What do they experience in their minds – or what do we? What can we do better? What can we all learn from each other? What is the experience of life at that age?
A review of literature regarding “Old Age” mostly yields descriptions of old people as either becoming very frail, some cantankerous, or as surprisingly carrying on, even expanding, specific intellectual interests in an exceptional way (see Plutarch, Theophrastos, modern artists and scientists), and more – while Goethe turned to alcohol and Hemingway shot himself when they had no further inspirations for writing – and some painters became depressive when their style was no longer in demand and they could not adapt to the new one). From this, the recommendation was deducted to carry on with earlier interests and even start new ones in old age (languages and literature, music and other arts, scientific research, and other). Literature, however, does not yield many writings about the experience of “old age” as seen from the inside.
Outstanding among historic writers about old age is Cicero (106 to 43 BC). He had established himself as a leading politician during the late “Republican” phase of Rome’s political structure, prior to the arrival of Caesar’s dominance as dictatorial emperor. Nowadays, we would use the terms of a “democratic” phase followed by a “dictator” or tyrant.
During Caesar’s reign, Cicero had, for safety reason, withdrawn from public life, living in solitude, concentrating on the study of Greek, mainly on stoic philosophy. As Caesar was murdered in 44 BC, Cicero returned with enthusiasm to public life and used this opportunity to publish some of his most important writings – including the short scripture commonly called “De Senectute” (“About Old Age”). Cicero was only 62 years of age at that time, but he used the literary scheme of presenting his thoughts as the words of a prior famous personality – in this case of Marcus Porcius Cato, called Cato Maior, (234 to 149 BC), depicted by Cicero as then being 84 years of age.
Cicero did not live much longer, actually not reaching “old age” himself. Being the most forceful “democratic” opponent to the rising next generation of tyrannical dictators, Antony and Octavian (later called Augustus), Cicero was quickly eliminated by being simply murdered by Antony’s agents (in 43 BC) – as were many other freedom-seeking activist Romans in those days, many murdered by Antony and more by Augustus.
Cicero had already read the earlier dialogue between Cephalos and Sokrates, written by Plato (428-347 BC) on only a couple of pages at the beginning of the “1st Book” in his “Politeia” (the “Republic”). This specific dialog was written in 360 BC, when Plato was 68. In this dialog, the more than 80 years old Cephalos sees the pleasures of the body replaced by the intellectual pleasure of conversing with a philosopher. Sokrates, in turn, was presented as seeing in Cephalos a traveler through life a few miles ahead of the others and asked him for a report.
Cephalos answers that, among all old people, there is too much concentration on and talk about what they lost in physical capabilities and pleasures. He and his friends stayed away from that and saw old age rather as a liberation from passions.
Sokrates suspects in the dialogue that Cephalos’ wealth makes him feel more at ease than others. Cephalos agrees but points out that those who build wealth usually also keep the desire of acquiring ever more of it, still talking about nothing else in their late life. Only those who inherited wealth know how to enjoy old age through it.
The two than discuss the fear of death, which Cephalos relates to the fear of a last judgment – about what wrong one has done to others – by deceiving or defrauding them.
Cicero, in his “De Senectute”, follows Plato by also concentrating on the three problem categories of losing physical capabilities, of losing pleasures – and of fearing death. But Cicero analyzes the problems of old age as being subdivided into 4 sub-phases or categories. He proceeds by proving how the problems of each phase or category could be fully solved by Stoic philosophy. The phases of old age according to Cicero are:
A. The onset of old age (at about 60), leading to a loss of position in society or meaningful occupation, resulting in burdensome idleness
B. The increasing physical restrictions resulting from an aging body
C. The loss of basic pleasures in life
D. The threatening approach of the end of life
A postscript: It is interesting to note that the fast expansion and success of the Christian faith in the ancient world came largely from promising a way around the last judgment, leading directly into heaven. Equally, Islam, as recently seen so clearly, recruits suicide fighters by promises of instant and direct access to paradise for martyrs in the jihad against the enemies of Islam – and promises such access also to their many innocent victims. Was the belief in paradise always a blessing for mankind or did it lead to neglect of the potential of life and also to less responsibility for the conditions of life on Earth?
The Onset of Old Age, Possible Idleness:
The value of the early phase of old age (upon retirement) depends upon economic conditions and, mainly, upon sometimes difficult choices what to dedicate this phase of life to. Thus, it may become disappointing or it may actually become the best phase of life.
Society has largely retained the habit of phasing people out of their position or occupation into retirement when they reach an age above 60. Lately, with longer retention of health and increased life expectancy, retirement age has shifted toward age 65, now even proposed to shift for economic reasons toward age 70.
Cicero belongs to the upper class of the fully developed Roman civilization, not to the always hard-working lower classes. In comparison with our time, one should consider the middle or upper class of North America, Europe and only few other areas of the world.
Cicero begins with a generally negative concept of old age, as a time of carrying a burden. To cope with this, he puts emphasis on character. People with a relaxed attitude and a sophisticated mind bear old age more easily than ill-tempered and uneducated ones. As Plato’s Cephalos, Cicero points out that sufficient wealth helps to be content in old age, if combined with wisdom and virtues. To postpone the beginning of “old” age, Cicero proposes continued engagement or activities and specifically also learning (as he began the study of the Greek language and Greek philosophy in old age).
As in Cicero’s time, also in our time exists a wide variety of personal responses to retirement – while some people long merely for the freedom of retirement, others fear a meaningless life lacking the recognition of their former position, again others attempt to hang on to their occupations as long as they can, even beyond age 70. Most hope for some pleasant or fulfilling involvement in their old age. As in Roman times, there still are possibilities in political consulting, in public service on a local level in community administration or on commissions, in agriculture, now called gardening, and the arts.
In our time, however, the variety of possible activities in old age seems to have been considerable widened compared to Cicero’s time – through the development of our culture and the rising level of sophistication of all people – all being globally interconnected with everybody else through travel, communication, and now the internet. Leisure activities for a large segment of the people may center on fishing, golfing, bridge, and the social club. Many spend time in gyms or on other exercises. Some spend their time on pursuing investments by way of the internet. Additionally, there is mind stimulating traveling or continued learning.
Specifically, the old, the “Senators”, should contribute their “wisdom” to long-term and strategic planning – as on industrial or political “Boards”. Typical for our time, there are the many possible activities as volunteers for charity. Additionally, there is more room or need for “activism” for a large variety of causes. The old should also teach, to transfer their knowledge to the young generation!
In any event, continued mental engagement and diligence is recommended for general well being and also for health (as for maintaining memory through mental exercises).
As seen from the inside, many retiring people hesitate to become involved in new fields. Actually, it is rather easy to become nominated to the board of almost any non-profit organization by merely donating $10,000 to its cause. Upper level managers cannot see themselves only as helpers on low-level commissions. Financial experts see themselves as superior to the practical doers in most fields – or as not qualified. Some just relax a bit too much (reading newspapers, watching TV), not showing any energy and initiative to get involved.
Cicero and most advisors to old people neglect that the old just don’t feel like having as much energy left as demanded from them. Many need not only a nap in the afternoon, but feel more tired much of the time. The view from the inside indicates interest in seeing others run around outside – if they just leave me alone on the bench overlooking the garden or in here at my desk and on my comfortable chair. Voluntarily slowing down and the desire for concentrating on life at home is the increasing experience of most people as they grow older.
Thus, only early retirement, in the combination of freedom and remaining energy with a still widening horizon in travel, studies and possible civic or artistic engagements, can become the richest phase, or one of the richest and personally most rewarding phases, of a person’s life – if the initiative is taken to get involved! Later however, sliding into “old age” must be countered by own initiative or supporting stimulation from outside to maintain fullness of life.
Physical Handicaps and Restrictions
The increasing health problems of our bodies lead to physical and also to psychological effects. Advances in medicine and palliative care, however, help to overcome most burdens of advancing age. Focusing the mind away from constant attention to medical issues and onto more desirable topics helps to improve the quality of life for oneself and also for one’s environment.
In physical terms, most medical problems of our time (compared to Cicero’s) can be countered by an unbelievable amount of progress in medical knowledge and modern technology – and also by palliative care. Thus, the concentration should no longer be on self-pity alone, but on finding the right medical specialist and the right hospital with the applicable experience or innovative insight to effectively help. Initiative is demanded.
Psychologically, however, any suddenly occurring physical problems, but also any slowly rising ones, can appear threatening and occupy an ever increasing share of a person’s attention – at worst leading to fear and anxiety. This can be explained by the functioning of the brain and human thought. The mind pays attention to foreground experiences – unless “focusing” on themes beyond those (see the comments on thought-sequencing in the lead article on the “Human Mind”). Thus, if there is no overriding perception or willful focusing on more elevating matters, the mind will continuously return to even minor aches or pains – and this will dominate the conversation with other people, who likewise continue reporting endlessly about their little or important ills.
There is one retirement home for the aged near Princeton, however, where friends dining together prohibit any mention of medical subjects at their table!
People can be equally obsessed by other themes, like money (investments), power, food, sex, or, at worst, crime (see copy-crimes) – alternatively also on reaching sainthood through abstinence, prayer or endless meditation. Personally selected focusing does allow the willful return to more enjoyable or elevated thought sequences and discussions. This is implied in the biblical “Beatitude” demanding a “clean heart”! This is meant to be accomplished by religious reading and chanting, or by so-called exercises (Loyola) – or by Buddhist meditations – or, once recognized, by personal effort in focusing and life style (surrounding culture).
Additionally, the view from the inside out as one ages is modified by arising or prevailing “moods”, by emotions, or their lack. Human emotions are not merely neurologically founded. To a large extent they are biochemically founded. Everybody knows the effect of adrenaline – or of a cup of coffee, or of alcohol – or of dopamine, especially when harmfully related to drug consumption. Actually, there are many biochemical substances produced by various glands in the human body which influence mood. Improved food composition, medications and, very importantly, exercises are the countermeasures. Especially helpful for mood improvement is humor and laughter!
What remains may be a tiring or dulling effect of all the medications one is expected to consume at old age – reducing life’s fullness and joy. One should not forget those who do encounter really serious, sometimes painful, and possibly life threatening physical problems.
Thus, the inside experience of this phase of life is one of suddenly being restrained in preferred activities – as beginning to be distant from all the younger people. This is more troublesome for those who had a sport or other physical activity as their now fading preference in life. There are dark thoughts about “what is left in life for me” – but this can and must be countered by initiative to obtain modern medical treatments or palliative care, exercises, mainly focusing on the positive aspects of life, on congenial company and humor. Since moods are not constant, one should take care of oneself to retain enough energy for the always remaining very positive periods of time – to still fully live when they occur.
The Loss of Life’s Pleasures
The importance given to the loss of life’s pleasure depends upon personal psychological conditions. Shifting the mental focus to the higher ones among remaining pleasures still lets us enjoy and even fulfill life.
Plato and Cicero count the loss of pleasures as one of the set-backs of old age. They counter with the benefit of the loss of passions (the ones on the lowest level of motivations) and emphasize the remaining higher joys of the human mind – as in conversations with sophisticated friends or, mainly, in studying and applying philosophy.
Actually, as one gets older, one does feel being separated from joyful youth – as belonging at another table in the tent of life, where people eat small portions and merely play cards – and don’t exuberantly dance on the tables any longer. I know some older people who always want to sit at the table with the young, to still participate in their joy – while possibly actually disturbing the careless world of those.
In the lead article on “Philosophy and Theology” on this website, on “Meaning of Existence, Personal Direction, Values”, a matrix is presented organizing and ranking the various motivations or priorities in life:
On the most basic level is the satisfaction of the most naturally given needs: survival and satisfaction of physical needs (food, shelter, sex), the great value of companionship with family and in the clan, and already some aesthetic embellishment of the environment.
On the middle level is the seeking of wealth, power, and entertainment.
On the highest level are the searching for mental growth, the dedication and service to others and the community, and the participation in the arts (culture):
Caring Service & Charity
Building a Better Society
Enjoyment of Culture,
Security and Dignity
Positive Significance in Society
Family and Clan
Actually, the rise to any of the higher motivations compensates for the possible loss sustained on lower levels – especially for those capable of concentrating on the highest level: Growth, Service, Culture (Art).
Again, it is a matter of willfully cultivating a “clean heart” by willfully concentrating or focusing again and again on the “higher” motivations in our culture.
Sometimes, it is not the matter of specific grandiose actions, but of merely “emanating” a positive spirit in life and in empathy to our domestic or business environment. I remember my grandmothers not by anything they may have said, but by their emanation of goodness, participating love, and joyfulness which they communicated to the world around them.
Intellectually abstract participation in life has become almost prevalent in our age of internet communication. Endless hours are being spent on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Google or Wikipedia searches and communication – at Skype cost and speed. The Internet opens the world for participation anytime and anywhere.
Yes, the view of life from the inside-out at old age is one of receding pleasures – but of receding of the lower pleasures first, leaving the higher ones – if not, emptiness will appear.
As said before, one should not forget the very many people who are burdened by serious problems of health, especially also by loneliness, and who don’t have the means to attract desirable help.
Old Age, The Approaching End of Life
In the last phase of life, in real “Old Age”, the conduct of life becomes more serious. Personal weakness and withdrawal set in, possibly also serious health conditions. The care-givers too often counter by applying excessive control in the attempt to keep the old person vitalized from morning to evening, not allowing the quiet and rest as desired by the further aging old person. However, too much of quiet and rest is obviously not good either. The middle ground and its adjustment to sliding conditions is difficult to find. Some degree of warmth and happiness must remain in life. Finally, death is a sad departure, but can appear to the departing one as liberation and the greatest vision-like near-death experience.
Here are some comments about the view from the inside-out:
Initially, it is merely a sudden regret, later it becomes an increasingly often appearing sadness and form of suffering, when one or the other of our friends, colleagues, or relatives passes away – some slowly, others suddenly. The risk to one’s own life is increasingly evident. One sees the time coming when one self or – most threatening – one’s companion in life will pass away! Will one remain in great loneliness or will one have to leave one’s loved companion in such a situation?
Not only does the social circle become smaller in old age, additionally one develops a more isolated attitude – socially inviting less and accepting less invitations – and participating in less organized activities (clubs or the likes).
One feels like living on a stretching touch-screen – where an invisible hand lets everything around us recede – slowly at first – then further and further away – until everything appears far away and becomes less reachable. Long distance travel may be given up first. Excursion to the nearest town or friends a few miles away are no longer desirable. Sitting at home, comfortably, is preferred – yet, felt as isolation.
The spirit always feels and stays younger than the aging body – as if the same young “soul” were living in a slowly crumbling house. The body becomes a burden – sometimes even feeling physically heavy – and, with increasing arthritis in the knees or other joints, unpleasant to move at all. This lets the body also become a psychological burden.
How can any joy or optimism remain? Surprisingly, joy and laughter can very well remain – though not physically but psychologically restrained – more accurately, biochemically restrained – where often the happiness or laughter-causing hormone (as dopamine) appears to be missing in the body (more accurately, in the brain). Not only present joy, but also optimism for the future, is impeded by similar causality.
In theaters, there are certain curtains which permit or inhibit vision to the other side, depending upon lighting conditions. Similarly in the life of the very old, it often appears as if a curtain appeared – the view of the world appearing beyond such virtual curtain becoming more opaque, even turning darker at times or with age.
It can appear as if one were viewing oneself and life from a distance, as seen from the audience and actually acting somewhere on a distant stage.
Thus, it appears as if the pursuit of the course of life felt like sliding down – mostly slowly, occasionally in steps – sometimes recovering from a step, merely to continue the slide thereafter. Insecurity sets in about every step one takes, about the problems of the next day.
A special sensation – often but not always felt as a burden – is the feeling of being mostly tired – but not at all times. There are still some brilliantly clear moments, hours, days, or weeks.
There are moments of specific and very intensive perception of beauty in this world – often in some detail – sunshine on the garden, a flower, a happy young child, the presence of one’s companion in life.
It is important to not let the difficult moments grind down one’s own resilience and, most importantly, not the resilience of one’s companion. Outside care-giving help must be found and engaged to unburden one’s companion – to let him or her remain fully positive during the bright moments or periods of time together, which do occur again and again!
It is a positive experience that the moment one starts on an intellectually or emotionally challenging task – some interesting reading or, more so, some interesting writing, work of art, or conversation – all feeling of tiredness, even headaches, disappear for the time being. This leaves fullness of life, joy of companionship, possibility for transfer of experience to the young, forming of one’s legacy – and appreciation for being thus alive.
However, as aging progresses and the feeling of being tired intensifies, there is no further vision for the next 5 years – not even for the next year. One feels ready “to go”.
Circumstances change when a surviving lonely person decides to seek shelter by moving in with a child, with his or her family. Sometimes dominance questions arise as in an early marriage. The old person cannot dominate and disturb the young family. The young family should not over-control and critique the old person, thereby reducing his or her dignity. The right distance must be found. The old person’s “giving-up” at the same time increases his or her isolation. In historic times, large farm houses had separate living quarters for the old (a really close-by small apartment would do), where they were also supplied with their needs and supported – and the warm harmony of an ideal multigenerational family could be maintained.
A feeling of isolation and departure among the old becomes especially intense when an accident, a sudden deterioration in health, or the judgment from the physician indicates that death is approaching. One can then feel like becoming surrounded by a shell or veil, leaving one in a life by one self – separate from all others – not belonging to their community any longer. This can happen to the young as they are met by a negative fate or, more regularly, by the old. Tormenting thoughts occur: will death be painful, how will it be, where will I be thereafter?
What is left and becomes ever more important is the caring for those then left behind. Are they provided for? Where and how will they live? Can they cope? How will the inheritance be distributed – and all the many objects and meaningful souvenirs collected over a life time or already inherited from earlier generations? Can a family archive be formed?
More troubling questions: What actually is the mental legacy I leave behind? Should I write it down? What did I stand for, what did I accomplish in life, what would I like to be remembered for? What are my departing warm wishes for the children and grandchildren?
Plato and Cicero considered life after death as the soul’s judgment followed by an eternal life. Alternatively, the more modern Cicero also considered the possibility of a complete end upon death. Cicero found peace in each. A Christian finds peace in divine forgiving and eternal life after death, too. The modern person may see in death only an end – as for everything in nature – at best a homecoming to nature – and may find great peace in that vision, too.
My own “near-death experience” and vision to the beyond was most serious and grandiose – beyond description – and also most positive – beyond description! It was so peaceful and harmonious, the feeling of having found an eternal home. I was very sad when the doctors succeeded in bringing me back to life in this world.
The last words of Steve Jobs, as he lay dying, were three times “Oh! --- Wow!” … then he had passed away.
In the end:
The reaction to and experience with „Old Age“, as well as one’s own behavior in old age, largely results from the culture or environment one lives in – and one’s remaining financial means and remaining social connections, at best in a loving family.
One can somewhat influence the cultural factor – whether living in the “West” or moving to an Indian guru, or elsewhere. Our culture now finds itself between old religious concepts and the discoveries made possible by the sciences. Thus, we see the origin of this universe as being beyond all comprehension – immensely grandiose and intellectually structured – augmented by probability concepts of quantum mechanics. We recognize that all will come to an end in the distant future! Cicero compared it to a traveling mariner finally seeing land in the distance.
We see us personally observing and participating in this world and in evolving nature for a few decades only. We must recognize that we have the full responsibility for our actions and our participation in society – within the limits of our personal freedom. We must grasp the initiative. We are responsible not only for our actions, but also for what we “emanate”, what we contribute to our environment.
We must accept our aging as that of only one organism in all of transient nature – and still fulfill as best we can every positive hour remaining for us in this world – while admiring the grandiose structure and the beauty of nature on Earth – and warmly cherishing the ties of our heart – mainly to those close to us – our family, also our friends, and specifically also the suffering ones – and to nation, and society at large.