How do you age well in contemporary Western society? The current models of ageing describe it in terms of neediness, sickness and frailty. The ageing population is seen to be something of a burden.
When I was a young child we lived with my paternal grandfather for a few months while our new house was being built. We had just returned from interstate where my father had been working. There we had lived in a modern housing estate surrounded by other families with young children. This grandfather I was suddenly presented with was an entirely new phenomena to me. I had never met anyone like him before. He was very tall and thin and white hair grew out of his ears. I found him intimidating but was utterly fascinated by him and his way of life.
When he was a young man my grandfather built the house we now stayed in. All by himself, or so the story went. This fact alone amazed me. My new family home was being built by a team of builders and building materials were delivered in bulk on large trucks. Back when my grandfather built his house cars were a novelty. My grandfather had never owned one. Out the back of the house were the dusty, shadowy stables and huge barns where grandfather had kept his carts and his horse. The horse was long gone but dilapidated carts moulded and decomposed in the back of the barn. Decrepit old bicycles hung from the walls. Beyond the barns there was a large vegetable garden at least twice the size of the average suburban block. Much of the garden had fallen into disuse as my grandfather aged but he still maintained a few plots close to the house.
Over the summer we stayed there the disused garden beds became a sea of yellowing grasses that dipped and swayed as the sea breeze rippled across them. When the light caught the underside the grasses would shine like silvery ribbons. The bedroom I was allocated was at the front of the house. On long summer evening I would see my grandfather moving around the gardens. His back was stooped with age and he carried an ancient scythe over his shoulder. It was a way of life and a way of ageing that is all but forgotten in the West now.
Before my family returned from interstate I had been sent to stay with my maternal great grandmother when my mother was ill. I was about five or six at the time. For a few magical weeks I was transported from my suburban home to a gracious old house in inner city Melbourne. A curious collection of old people lived in a rambling building where the light came in through tall clerestory windows and pooled in limpid whiteness on floors of dark stained timber. Mysterious uncles murmured and muttered in the back rooms. One spent his days copying illuminated manuscripts onto sheets of vellum. Sometimes my great grandmother would take me to visit him. I cannot recall what he looked like for my eyes were all agog taking in the details of his desk. Here the light flooded in through a high window. The wooden desk beneath glowed a warm, reddish brown. Bottles of ink arranged on the window sill were iridescent vials of vivid viridian, alizarin, cobalt and cadmium. The pages my uncle worked on were covered with intricate swirls and spidery calligraphic script. Again – a way of life and a way of ageing that is rarely encountered these days.
By the time my own family returned from interstate the gracious inner city house had been sold and its inhabitants had dispersed. Some I never saw again but my great grandmother was an important figure in my life until she died aged 94. Up until the last few months of her life she lived independently and continued to make the gorgeous clothes and handcrafted soft furnishings the rest of the family treasured.
As I grow older myself I find myself questioning the way age is currently viewed. The old people I encountered in early childhood did not buy into the idea of old age as a gradual decline into debilitating illness. Their lives were filled with unhurried hours where they pursued their interests and creative activities.
Thinking about these people I’m coming to think that a peaceful old age isn’t necessarily found in retiring from the world to some little coastal village like the one I currently live in. I see white haired people here filling up their days with numerous social events, structured activities and group meetings where they organise more structured activities and social events. That way of life doesn’t appeal to me. Driving about seeing the sights or travelling overseas crossing must see places off the bucket list is fun for a while but I’m not rich enough to keep up that lifestyle for long. Besides, it gets exhausting and kind of meaningless after a while.
More and more I am asking – How do I nourish myself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually as I age? More and more it seems to me that at least part of the answer to the questions lies is considering just how the old people I knew as a child lived their lives.