Elder angst can result when we fall prey to the ageist messages rampant in our culture. However, the practice of material and spiritual simplicity can allow us to age peacefully and productively.
By Gene Sager
Aging can be difficult in any culture, but it is especially problematic in our culture today. In addition to health issues, there are explicit and implicit messages from society that even the rugged individualist elder cannot avoid. Some messages are confusing, even disheartening, as when ageism leads people to assume that oldsters are incompetent and have no viable role or purpose any more.
A recent flurry of messages promote an alternative perspective that I call “aerobic aging.” Elders are encouraged by “can do” slogans to stay active through a whirlwind of activities, including employment into very advanced ages. Pumped up with Viagra and hormones, elders are to be “on the ball” and “on the job.”
I believe that elderly individuals can get beyond the quandary about which role is appropriate. The key to a solution, surprisingly enough, is the practice of various types of simplicity – outer and inner, material and spiritual.
Aerobic aging – a perverse over-reaction to ageism – is known in official circles as “productive aging.” The National Association of State Units on Aging (NASUA) and other organizations tout this elder lifestyle to counter ageism. But the truth is that both ageism and productive aging are caught up in the same extreme emphasis so characteristic of our culture: an obsession with youth, vigor, production and consumption. Ageism idealizes youthful vigor by disparaging the declining years, and production aging promotes youthful vigor by trying to deny the reality of the declining years.
The concept of productive aging is gaining popularity and the irony of this situation is extreme. We are in danger of spoiling our planet because of hyper-production and hyper-consumption, yet we urge our elders to maintain a high level of production/consumption just at the time of life when their strength and energy are on the wane. The message to our elders is, “After your 40 or 50 years of productivity, we expect more of the same!” The 24 hour syndrome symbolizes the situation: It is as though elders are encouraged to work on through the night after a long and productive day shift.
A simpler life – with less work, less production, and less consumption – is the solution to many of our ills in North America today; and simplicity is perhaps more fitting for elders than for any other age group.
My uncle typifies the problems with productive aging. He prospered in the construction business for many years and stayed on in the office, struggling with the new computer network. He continued to commute to the office and work because he needed to pay for the current additions to his home. The irony of such elder remodeling projects is that additions are made after the children and grandchildren are gone. Now he and his wife have a huge new rec room with a monster TV and a loft that no one uses. Besides the strain on the elders themselves, this productivity is a strain on the environment, using resources for commuting, remodeling, and heating and cooling the bigger house.
Of course, activity, exercise, and mental stimulation are parts of a healthy lifestyle for all of us. My complaints are about elder activity which is fueled by internalized social images or ideas. A sad example is my 70-year-old neighbor who retired from a career in accounting but now works at McDonald’s flipping burgers.
He likes the new job because, as he says, ”At least I’m gainfully employed.” Perhaps men are especially liable to give in to the alleged eternal need to be breadwinners, even when there is no shortage of bread. A more general reason for forced activity among elders is covered by this cliché: “It gives me something to do.” This pitiful phrase raises a serious question: Apart from socially imposed values, are there not stages in life – each with its own appropriate emphasis or lifestyle theme?
All considered, the kind of lifestyle theme that makes the most sense in old age is a spiritual one. I use the term “spiritual” to refer to the ability of the human spirit to achieve a profound inner peace and clarity. This may be called “peace of mind,” but it is not the flimsy happiness that is produced by merely keeping busy or occupying the mind with something pleasant or interesting in an attempt to overcome worry or boredom.
Sometimes, this busyness is called peace of mind, though such a state of mind is not really peaceful; it just covers over the problem and involves conflict with fear or worry. If I have concerns about finances or about my health, for example, then trying to cover these by preoccupying myself with a distraction is useless and counter-productive. The worries are still there, and now I am also exerting mental energy in a vain attempt to push them out of mind. The result is a condition of turbulence and conflict, not peace.
A deep or spiritual peace of mind can be achieved by practicing a type of inner simplicity known as non-attachment. Non-attachment can be practiced by anyone, but it is especially helpful to seniors; it allows an elder to let go of all sorts of worldly concerns. Non-attachment simplifies the inner life by removing attachments – those thoughts and desires that cause stress and clutter in the mind.
Suppose I am attached to the ideal of youthful looks and vigor. As I age, I need to let go of this ideal – that is, stop clinging to it and liberate myself from this unrealistic ideal. I can do this by pondering the reality that this attachment is causing stress and pain for me. This method is simple and straightforward, not using denial or distraction, but honestly attending to the way the attachment causes harm. As I see how through attachment I have created my own suffering, the attachment gradually begins to loosen and fade away.
Non-attachment is crucial for elders because old age is inevitably a time of losses – loss of strength and health, loss of relatives and friends (to death), loss of memory and much more. It is the time when we must let go of attachments. Old age is obviously the stage in which death is no longer a far distant possibility; it is the eleventh hour and for no age group is it more appropriate, more urgent, to face up to death. It is the time for non-attachment to life and preparedness for death.
Inner simplicity means freedom from attachments and freedom from the tension and fear caused by attachments. One simply stares down the attachments, denials, and fears of loss until they lose their power. The result is a deep tranquility, which comes as a great relief. This peace is like recovering from a cold that causes constant lung congestion. Relief comes as a deep sigh of relief, at long last. Clinging to nothing, not even to life, each moment is beautiful in itself. The final irony is that once we stop grasping at enjoyment, we are surprised to find that the simplest experiences are deeply enjoyable.
Freed from the external rat race and the internal round of attachment, the mind is calm and elders can attend to spiritual matters as the primary focus. Once the mind is cleared of the “dust of the world,” deeper meanings and one’s deeper identity can be perceived. These insights about life and death are attained by clearing away debris, not by filling the mind with ideas or adding beliefs to it. These insights may or may not coincide with the teachings of an established religion or spiritual philosophy. No matter. What is crucial is authenticity – being true to oneself as an elder.
Perhaps some will interpret me as saying that in the last stage we need to “have done with the troubles of the world.” I do mean this, but in a precise spiritual sense. I am not recommending monasticism or a hermit existence. I am suggesting a simple outer and inner life with a spiritual focus. Such a lifestyle can involve interacting with family and friends, pursuing one’s interests and, depending on the individual, considerable physical activity.
One can pursue an interest without being attached to it. One can plant a garden or build a deck without it becoming a burden. One can mentor others and do grandparenting without allowing these to become careers or allowing them to occupy a major block of one’s time, energy, and attention.
In many countries, the elder proportion of the population is increasing and longevity is increasing as well. No small benefit accrues to the world, and so to all of us, when elders practice inner and outer simplicity, putting less strain on themselves and on the environment. As elders live in a way appropriate to their stage of life, their lives fit the needs of our world as well.
Gene Sager is Professor Emeritus at Palomar College in California. Age 67 when he wrote this article, his occupations are writing, gardening, and watching the moon.
From Age-Ing to Sage-Ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Grand Central Publishing, 1997)
Aging: The Fulfillment of Life by Henri Nouwen (Image, 1976)
Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying by Ram Das (Riverhead Trade, 2001)
Old Age: Journey into Simplicity by Helen Luke (Harmony/Bell Tower, 2001)
Crone Pending by Maureen Evans in Natural Life Magazine’s January/February 1998 issue