Retired but not retarded

Retired but not retardedEdward Walsh

We live in an aging society and overlook the value of older people to our cost, writes Edward Walsh. The writer is a retired manager and lives in London.

When the BBC world affairs editor John Simpson appeared in When I Get Older " a TV programme which attempted to highlight the problems of old age " his outspoken views shocked many, causing not a little disquiet. The programme (part of the When I'm 65 season) was not easy viewing. Simpson commented that he was planning to commit suicide if unable to cope with serious illness in old age, and was actively considering euthanasia; he did not wish to 'end up dependent on someone else' and 'did not want his six year old son to remember him as a gibbering wreck.' These most provocative comments are all the more alarming coming as they do from a much esteemed broadcaster, and a distinguished veteran journalist not renowned for controversy. But life has to be lived with faith even though beset by severe adversity. Another and radically different perspective is that of Lewis Carroll's Father William1 when a modicum of amused common sense gently pokes fun at some of the foibles of old age.

You are old Father William the young man said,
And you hair has become very white,
And yet you increasingly stand on your head'
Do you think, at your age, it is right?

Some years ago when in engaged in historical research I stayed at a convent in one of the American mid-west states. When quiet- ly enjoying breakfast one morning I was approached by a sister who introduced her- self 'Hi, good morning, my name is Sister Ruth, I' m 90, retired but not retarded' then turned abruptly, walked off and left me.

Now that was straight talking, direct and to the point. Sister Ruth was not alone for there are many of us retired, who certainly are not retarded. At the time I confess to being a little surprised, but the thought remained with me to the present day.

Many people now work beyond normal retirement age, either because they wish to, or are obliged to do so because of economic necessity. With changes to pension regimes expected to compel many to work on until their seventies, early retirement is a thing of the past. Increased longevity is a worldwide phenomenon. Old age has become a fact of modern life, with a growing understanding of the so-called demographic time bomb as we are living longer, and having fewer children. There used to be four well known life stages " childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now there are six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. And not so long ago when an article in a quality broadsheet declared that Life begins at 90, that rather gives the lie to the Lennon and McCartney classic When I'm 64. But 'the Lord is my Shepherd I'll not want...Yea though I walk in death's dark vale, yet will I fear no ill; for Thou art with me,'2 so inhabit the promise; trust in the Lord, and live each day as if it were your last because one day it will be.

Having spent a considerable time living with my 89 year old father-in-law, I am more than conscious of the admonition that 'whoever respects his father will be happy with children of his own, he shall be heard on the day which he prays....My son, support your father in his old age, do not grieve him in his old age. Even if his mind should fail, show him sympathy and strength; for kindness to a father shall not be forgotten, but will serve as reparation for your sins.'3 It may be a tad flippant, but with all due respect to Ecclesiasticus, what about mother? Doesn't she count? I am edified by a widower friend whom I greatly admire who continues to live life to the full surrounded and supported by his children, and in this regard it is impossible to dis- agree with Cicero when he states 'the burden of age is lighter for those who feel respected and loved by the young.'

Falsely stereotyping older people is not unusual. The old are often considered to be a stubborn lot, doddery and confused individuals who have passed their use-by date, who are set in their ways, and are not interested in moving aside for the younger generation. It is often the case that it is far beyond the comprehension of a 20 year old to under- stand issues affecting somebody over 60 or 70. For decades people have worshipped youth, and although one may look much younger when one is older, the indignities of ageing in a society which prizes youth are all too evident. In a very matter of fact way, an Argentine friend observed 'you know what youngsters are like, they avoid contact with the elderly so as not to be contaminated by us.' That may be so. Nevertheless, many older people are influential, creative, highly cultured and have begun to realise that there is life after 60. In fact, old people are very often a walking antidote to a culture obsessed with youth. Agism alas, is also a reality and successful complaints have been made against organisations advertising for 'young, dynamic professionals' subsequently arguing that what was meant was 'young at heart.' The claims lacked credibility after it was revealed that none of the candidates was over 40. That somebody's ability to do a job should come down to their age and not their skills and experience is scandalous. Ageism is a very real issue despite legislation that makes discrimination illegal. Maturity has advantages and one should never underestimate the value of experience.

Old people are very often a walking antidote to a culture obsessed with youth

In my own experience hardly a month goes by without the loss of a dear friend and reading the newspaper brings with it the fear of finding yet another obituary notice. The journalist Peregrine Worsthorne has an interesting perspective when commenting that 'advanced old age, except for those with very thick skins, is a time of mourning, disguised by day but inescapably present at night.' For many, everyday living is a triumph of will over physical limitations. Archbishop Kelly of Liverpool, reminiscing about his mother, recalled that despite having a bus pass and winter fuel allowance he remembered with gratitude what his mother said when the arthritis was bad and instead of her once boundless energy most days were spent in a chair. 'Well Patrick, I Old people are very often a walking antidote to a culture obsessed with youth know Our Lord was crucified, but at least he never knew what it was like to be old.'4

It's a shame and a great loss that modern society does not always value the elderly enough " their experience and their wisdom. One wonders what will make people understand just how valuable a resource retired people can be. That was precisely the issue addressed directly by Pope John Paul II in his delightful Letter to the Elderly. This letter is not the musings of an old man complaining about his aches and pains, but rather the Pope speaking from the heart with gentleness, joy and hope, encouraging the elderly in their mission. Cor ad cor loquitur. 'Elderly people help us to see human affairs with greater wisdom, because life's vicissitudes have brought them knowledge and maturity. They are the guardians of our collective memory, and thus the privileged interpreters of that body of ideals and common values which support and guide life in society. To exclude the elderly is in a sense to deny the past, in which the present is firmly rooted, in name of a modernity without memory.

Precisely because of their mature experience, the elderly are able to offer young people precious advice and guidance.'5 This particular letter makes Pope John Paul II more endearing than ever.

As retirement age approached I was frequently asked 'what are you going to do when you retire?' Work, was my response. There were things to be done and attend to which had been put aside for years, music to play, books to be read and time to go walking and enjoy the beauty of the seasons and a slower pace of life. A medical practitioner friend noted 'I often ask myself if when it comes to retirement will I know how to use my time in such a way that I will continue to feel useful. It seems to me that Latin people live their retirement as if it were a punishment and not as if it is a time to do those things which we like and which we did not have the time to do.' That may be so, and when novelist Evelio Rosero's Father Almida tells Tancredo (his long suffering sacristan) 'that nothing is worse than old age, nothing more wretched or pitiable. It is God's last test'6 he has a point. But how old is too old to work? Three former classmates go out to dinner. It was a rainy evening but cosy and warm inside the restaurant. One recovering from recent den- tal surgery was able to eat only soft food. Another of the trio had weak eyesight and was unable to read the menu and had to have it read to him. They smiled about their disabilities as they moved, gracefully they hoped, through old age. Ecclesiastes places everything in perspective because 'for every- thing there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.... A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away, a time to tear, and a time to sew, a time to keep silence and a time to speak.'7

'You're retired' is a frequently heard aside. But I can't help wondering, retired from what? Retired from everyday living, paying the bills, cooking, a variety of domestic chores, keeping body and soul together? No. Definitely not. And what of the possible ravages of prostate cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's, depression, dementia or Alzheimer's? Neither you nor I nor anyone else is exempt. It was Alzheimer's which led the American epidemiologist Dr David Snowdon to undertake his now famous Nun Study, Aging with Grace.8 Convinced that the Sisters of Notre Dame would make ideal guinea pigs for a study into aging and health, in his quest to understand health and longevity Snowdon outlined his proposals to the Sisters and met with them to discuss the details. He recalls that 'there was an uncomfortable silence when brain donation was mentioned at a meeting.' Initially the Sisters were shell shocked by Snowdon's request to donate their brains to him after death, but acquiesced.

You may never have heard of such a concept and may recoil from the idea because the brain is really you. The outcome is this remarkable book about a study which made important discoveries in the field of Alzheimer's and provides a lucid insight into the science of old age. Marc Agronin's recent work How We Age: A Doctor's Journey into the Heart of Growing Old9 provides an understanding of the process of aging and what aging means today. But beware, neither book is an easy read. Agronin describes the Jewish tahara ritual, the preparation for burial, when those who wash and enshroud the body always take care never to turn their backs on it. The doctor challenges us to behave likewise with the old.

'Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty if we are strong, and most of them are fruit- less toil, for they pass quickly and we drift away.'10 So how do we face this certain reality? What does one do?

The actress Susan Sarandon when asked if she minded getting older, responded 'tell me, what's the alternative to getting older? Death!' Surely we should take aging and faith seriously, for there is growing evidence to show that prayer and attending Mass are linked with a positive experience of growing old. Embrace our dying. As always the psalmist is reassuring " 'and now that I am old and grey, O God forsake me not, till I proclaim your strength to every generation to come.'11 Pope Benedict XVI alluded to his own mortality on the occasion of his 85th birthday when commenting 'I am facing the final leg of the path of my life and I don't know what's ahead. I know though that God's light is there....and that his light is stronger than every darkness.'12

The 17th Century Nun's Prayer13 tackles what for many is an uncertain journey " the process of moving from youth to old age.

Lord, Thou knowest better than I know myself that I am growing older and will someday be old. Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking that I must say some- thing on every subject on every occasion. Release me from craving to straighten out everybody's affairs. Make me thoughtful but not moody; helpful but not bossy. With my vast store of wisdom, it seems a pity not to use it all, but Thou knowest Lord that I want a few friends at the end.

Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point, seal my lips on my aches and pains. They are increasing, and love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the years go by. I dare not ask for grace enough to enjoy the tales of others' pains but help me to endure them with patience.

I dare not ask for improved memory, but for a growing humility and a lessening cocksureness when my memory seems to clash with the memories of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be mistaken.

Keep me reasonably sweet; I do not want to be a Saint"some of them are so hard to live with " but a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil. Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people. And, give me, O Lord, the grace to tell them so.