The joys of ageing

by Toby Manhire / 17 July, 2013
Oliver Sacks turns 80 with pleasure - and Jane Fonda says she, too, is joyful, at 75. Plus: tips for positive ageing.
Oliver Sacks. Photo/Columbia University

A neat companion piece to last week’s Listener cover story comes in an essay for the New York Times by Oliver Sacks. The acclaimed British-American neurologist and author writes as he turns 80–a birthday that brings not dread but cheer.

Beneath the headline “The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding)”, he writes:

I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done.

But those are hardly overwhelming regrets.

At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.

Among the numerous responses prompted by Sacks’ piece is this from 75-year-old Jane Fonda. “I, too, feel joyful. I feel joyful more often now than I did in my 20s or 30s,” she writes, “and most definitely more often than in my 40s.”

Read Sacks’ essay here – and read Nicky Pellegrino’s Listener feature, “Ageing positively”, here (sub req'd).

From Nicky's piece, here are some tips for positive ageing:

  • Avoid repeating phrases like “I’m too old for” or “My brain is going soft”. The way we talk – and think – affects how we feel.

  • Keep up with advances in technology, focusing on what is useful for the way you want to live your life (there’s no need to be on top of everything).

  • Choose to live where there is a com­munity to connect with. This is not the life stage to pursue the dream of isolated rural living.

  • Keep your brain stimulated. New research from the University of California, Berkeley suggests that lifelong brain-stimulating habits – reading, writing, doing puzzles – are linked to lower levels of beta amyloid, a brain peptide that is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Counselling can help people cope with stress, change and conflict. (Community group WellElder says 87% of its clients need help with relationship issues, mainly with adult children and partners.)

  • Be flexible. Your old interests may not be possible but there will be new ones to develop. Learn to swim, surf, sing, play an instrument.

  • If possible, retire from work gradually rather than going cold turkey, particularly if your career has been a driving force in your life.

  • Find a passion, develop your creativity, learn how to play again. Sometimes thinking back to the things you enjoyed when you were a child can be the key to enriching the later stages of life.

  • Avoid getting set in your ways. Former clinical psychologist Stephanie Allison says that although the older brain may no longer be in an acquisition phase and its thinking style will change, it is still ­possible to learn new things.

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