The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding)

oliver-sacks-c-e-51479dd0Elements and birthdays have been intertwined for me since boyhood, when I learned about atomic numbers. At 11, I could say “I am sodium” (Element 11), and now at 79, I am gold. A few years ago, when I gave a friend a bottle of mercury for his 80th birthday — a special bottle that could neither leak nor break — he gave me a peculiar look, but later sent me a charming letter in which he joked, “I take a little every morning for my health.”

Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over. My mother was the 16th of 18 children; I was the youngest of her four sons, and almost the youngest of the vast cousinhood on her side of the family. I was always the youngest boy in my class at high school. I have retained this feeling of being the youngest, even though now I am almost the oldest person I know.

I thought I would die at 41, when I had a bad fall and broke a leg while mountaineering alone. I splinted the leg as best I could and started to lever myself down the mountain, clumsily, with my arms. In the long hours that followed, I was assailed by memories, both good and bad. Most were in a mode of gratitude — gratitude for what I had been given by others, gratitude, too, that I had been able to give something back. “Awakenings” had been published the previous year.

At nearly 80, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive — “I’m glad I’m not dead!” sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect. (This is in contrast to a story I heard from a friend who, walking with Samuel Beckett in Paris on a perfect spring morning, said to him, “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?” to which Beckett answered, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”) I am grateful that I have experienced many things — some wonderful, some horrible — and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “an intercourse with the world.”

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.

I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever “completing a life” means. Some of my patients in their 90s or 100s say nunc dimittis — “I have had a full life, and now I am ready to go.” For some of them, this means going to heaven — it is always heaven rather than hell, though Samuel Johnson and James Boswell both quaked at the thought of going to hell and got furious with David Hume, who entertained no such beliefs. I have no belief in (or desire for) any post-mortem existence, other than in the memories of friends and the hope that some of my books may still “speak” to people after my death.

W. H. Auden often told me he thought he would live to 80 and then “bugger off” (he lived only to 67). Though it is 40 years since his death, I often dream of him, and of my parents and of former patients — all long gone but loved and important in my life.

At 80, the specter of dementia or stroke looms. A third of one’s contemporaries are dead, and many more, with profound mental or physical damage, are trapped in a tragic and minimal existence. At 80 the marks of decay are all too visible. One’s reactions are a little slower, names more frequently elude one, and one’s energies must be husbanded, but even so, one may often feel full of energy and life and not at all “old.” Perhaps, with luck, I will make it, more or less intact, for another few years and be granted the liberty to continue to love and work, the two most important things, Freud insisted, in life.

When my time comes, I hope I can die in harness, as Francis Crick did. When he was told that his colon cancer had returned, at first he said nothing; he simply looked into the distance for a minute and then resumed his previous train of thought. When pressed about his diagnosis a few weeks later, he said, “Whatever has a beginning must have an ending.” When he died, at 88, he was still fully engaged in his most creative work.

My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. 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.

I am looking forward to being 80.”

By Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology at the N.Y.U. School of Medicine and the author, most recently, of ‘Hallucinations’. Read the full article on The New York Times website.


Celebrating Age and Volunteering

“Older Volunteers are proving to be excellent help at organisations across Dundee – from helping out at the Shelter Charity Shop on Perth Road, to helping out at the Brae Riding for the Disabled up in Balgillo. And it’s not just the organisations who are benefiting from it – the volunteers themselves are getting a lot out of it too.

Celebrating Age and Volunteering is a new short film that has been produced by Volunteer Centre Dundee as part of the Volunteer Enabling Project. The film is a story of thirteen older volunteers who give up their time organisations across Dundee, and has been made to raise awareness of older volunteers and to help inspire other older people to get into volunteering.

The launch event on 7th December 2012 saw professionals, organisations and older people come together to celebrate the value of the volunteer’s contribution and to help them realise that older volunteers could be a fantastic asset to organisations.

The stars of the film come from a wide variety of different organisations across Dundee – from volunteering at the Shelter Charity shop to doing yard work at the Brae Riding School. The wide range of skills that volunteers give to organisations is endless. The valuable contribution that older people give to these organisations proves that age is only a number!

Older people who volunteer and are active within their communities are proven to live longer and lead healthier lives. Especially in things like depression, as they are getting out, meeting people and are still socially active, rather than being isolated – even after just contributing two hours per week.

Agnes Ross, Volunteer at MIDLIN Day Care and participant in the film said “It was just a feeling that you wanted to join in, and that’s what I did, I joined in. It’s a thing I would never of thought about doing, because in my head I thought, ‘volunteering, it’s just for younger people.’ But it’s not. It’s for anybody who wants to help and by volunteering you are helping yourself.”

FLEX Dundee Exhibition: An Open Invitation

ANDY'S SMASUNG NOTE 2 CAMERA images and videos 4750 copy FLEX cordially invites professionals, researchers and the public to an open exhibition at the upper level gallery of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (DJCAD) at the University of Dundee, Perth Road, DD1 4HT, on Thursday 4th April 2013 from 7:00pm to 8:45pm. The exhibition runs until 11th April.

This event celebrates recent work of FLEX, the Flexible Dwellings for Extended Living research project. FLEX is a collaboration involving researchers from the University of Northumbria, Northern Architecture in Newcastle and DJCAD, Dundee. The project is a one-year exploratory study investigating new modes of dwelling for future generations of older people to retain dignity and strengthen the community.

A key FLEX ingredient has been dialogue and collaboration with organisations representing older people, housing, care and architecture to examine critical visions for the future from many sides. FLEX also devised creative engagement workshops with laypersons using high tea experiences to open up debate with community elders and future elderly generations in the convivial setting of the café and unearth the perspective of the wider community.

At a time when accommodating the ageing population in the UK is undergoing acute change, this exploratory project offers insights into how best to plan for our future.

FLEX is an Arts & Humanities Research Council Connected Communities (AHRC): Culture & Design follow-on funding project.

Fore more information please contact:

Andy Milligan
Tel: 01382 775 455
Mob: 07929 136 580

Design Council Forum: Ageing Better by Design

Ageing Better BannerThe Design Council have recently been looking at how design can respond to the needs of an ageing population.

They’ve held two Design Forums on the subject, bringing together some of the leading experts in the field to discuss the latest thinking on the built environment and products and services.

Click here to listen again to the best talks from these events on the Design Council website.

UK Woefully Underprepared for Ageing Society, Say Peers

Underprepared“The UK is “woefully underprepared” for the social and economic challenges presented by an ageing society, a Lords committee has warned.

The committee said “the gift of longer life” could lead to “a series of crises” in public service provision.

Peers said big changes in pensions, health care and employment practices were needed to help people “sustain a good quality of life” as they aged.

The government said supporting people in later life was a priority.”

Click here to read the full article on the BBC News website.

The Babayagas’ House – A Feminist Alternative to Old People’s Homes in Paris

“It’s been 15 years in the making but the Babayagas’ House, a name taken from Slavic mythology meaning ‘witch’, has just been inaugurated in Montreuil, on the east side of Paris.

It’s a self-managed social housing project devised and run by a community of dynamic female senior citizens who want to keep their independence, but live communally.

“To live long is a good thing but to age well is better,” says 85 year old Thérèse Clerc who dreamt up the project back in 1999.

“Growing old is not an illness,” says the elegant, feisty Clerc. “We want to change the way people see old age,” and that means “learning to live differently.”

The building houses 25 self-contained flats. 21 are adapted for the elderly and four are reserved for students.

The five-storey building is in the heart of Montreuil, just a stones throw from metro, shops and cinema. Residents pay an average of 420 euros for 35m2.

Being central was important. “The message is ‘you will go out, you have a right to be active’,” says Jean-Paul Blery from the town’s housing department.

Janine Popot moved into her 29m2 studio a few weeks ago and still hasn’t opened all the boxes. As one of ten children, she says she wanted to live alongside others but not in a conventional home.

“I wanted to avoid ending up in a retirement home at all costs. When you don’t have much money, a retirement home becomes a prison,” she explains.

Growing old well means keeping the grey matter going. So the house isn’t just a place to live. The ground floor is reserved for activities and will house a university for senior citizens.

Residents were selected partly in relation to what they could contribute to the “community” and the extent to which they shared the Babayaga philosophy.’

Click here to read the full article on Radio France Internationale website.