By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Alex Comfort, a gerontologist, followed up his best-selling book, “The Joy of Sex,” with this cheery title, “The Joy of Old Age.” Cheer up, old friends; believe, if you can, there’s joy in old age. B. F. Skinner, famous Harvard behaviorist psychologist, put out “Enjoy Old Age.” I have read Skinner’s modest proposals; at least they’re not cheery. I’m inclined towards “Cope with Old Age.” A joyful old age is rare; a painful or depressing old age is common. The old are truly les miserables. Old age is misery, but I can get some goodness out of it and, try and stop me, usually be happy.
Articles about old age advise me that it’s a phase like other phases in life, babyhood, toddler years, teen years, single young adult, young married, middle age, and the senior years after 55. I object to old age as a phase, because it’s the terminal phase. After old age comes The End; but I can deal with the end.
People generally enjoy cooing at babies lovingly and booing at the old derisively. Yet, much like babies, many among us aged persons drool and wet our diapers. You should not be prejudiced, however, against us old people. Would you be prejudiced against the gay, if you in time were to become one?
Psychologists tell me it’s normal as I age for my hormones to change, as they change in adolescence. Yes, in adolescence my testosterone got a boost to stratospheric levels. I remember friends in boy scouts competing who could hit the ceiling of the tent with semen. In old age, testosterone drops causing your muscles to wither and your bones to become brittle. Women lose estrogen earlier and wrinkle before men do; that doesn’t console me.
Our last years are not shining golden years, but rusting leaden years. Here I am on Golden Pond, like Henry Fonda, rusting on the water, with no Kathrine Hepburn to look after me and depress me. That gorgeous Jane Fonda would have been nice to have around.
It is said that life begins at forty; that’s nice, but what about life after eighty? I don’t need palliatives and bromides to live with old age; I need resignation, which I frequently use to accept death and taxes, also inevitable.
I read that after the age of forty, a man’s penis shortens by ten percent each year. I don’t need this information; in the shower, unlike some lucky men, I can see below my belly. Believe me, it’s The Case of the Disappearing Penis.
I’m told in advice for elders that sex is possible at any age. Why should I bother? As George Burns used to quip, I refuse to make love with a piece of rope.
A little girl of six in Greece once told me playfully she was headed for the bars that evening; I offered to accompany her. She said to me but you’re a gerakas (big eagle), meaning to say geros (old man). I liked gerakas and I call myself gerakas. I can call myself whatever I choose, can’t I? The world is interesting in so far as we create it with our imagination; the rest is hackwork.
Shirley MacLaine, Oscar-winning movie star, is about my age; she’s no hack. She travels, writes, lectures, teaches meditation to thousands, acts when offered a gig, and believes in re-incarnation, channeling, mind healing, crystals, UFO’s, spiritualism—anything that interests her. Bravo to America’s favorite kook.
Is it true I can’t do first-rate work after my prime? Too bad; then I’ll do second-rate, or even fifth-rate work, whatever I can do. I promise, however, not to drive a bus, pilot a plane, do brain surgery, or anything endangering people. I’ll do research and writing. It won’t do anybody any harm; practically nobody reads my stuff even if it’s harmful.
It does no harm for old men and women my age or younger to hold up stop signs at crosswalks for children. They’re doing good work, needed work. Does it matter if the pay is nothing? We come to nothing soon enough.
I strove with none; for none was worth my strife,
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
So poet Walter Savage Landor felt on his seventy-fifth birthday. On my seventy-seventh birthday, I am not ready to depart; more fire, please. I want more Art, less Nature.
Nature tortures us from the moment we’re born to the moment we die. William Blake spoke eloquently about the trauma of birth in “Infant Sorrow”:
My mother groaned, my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt,
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend, hid in a cloud.
Birth is a challenge to us, but a greater challenge is old age. Babies survive to grow up; oldsters survive to shrivel up. I have not even started challenging myself.
Have you heard the one about the three men talking about being old? Being sixty is terrible, said one. I go to pee, strain for an hour and out comes a little dribble.
That’s nothing, said another, seventy is more terrible. I try to crap and after two hours I get a little pellet. The eighty-year old said, you guys have it easy. At six in the morning I pee enough to fill a bucket; at seven I crap my full load–
What’s so terrible about that?, interrupted the others.
The eighty-year man continued, –then at eight I get out of bed.
I’m not yet where these guys are, but give me time. I have been around more than 77 years, and still not crapping in my pants like a baby; I should be ready for the bench in the park or a chair at the coffee shop, arguing politics with other old farts, or playing backgammon. I’m not ready yet for this life either.
As we get old, we keep developing more disabilities, like prostate enlargement and urination difficulties; we also build up more immunities. We adjust and compensate for our losses. Some people become depressed with old age; I get more cheerful. I’m either discovering some profound philosophy, or I’m approaching the house of unprovoked laughter. Either way, I’m nearly immune to depression, irritation, frustration, disappointment, or excess anger. I’ve given up, that’s why. Try giving up; see how much good it does to your feelings.
For example, at my age, I no longer desire to make love to a beautiful woman, or to climb Mount Everest; I’m tranquil, nearly dead.
Still, experts tell me, old people, free from the care of growing children and grandchildren, are at last able to relax and enjoy sex. Thank you, experts, for this valuable information. I cannot imagine how I would manage my terminal years without your advice.
The same clan of experts tell me sex is good for my health, both mental and physical, because old people who stay sexually active have higher levels of testosterone if men, or estrogen if women. These hormones balance your system, stimulating body repair and emotional well being. Give me Viagra then, and let’s have an orgy; I’m ready to roll in the hay and take on all comers.
Forgive my occasional levity; I’ve learned to laugh at my foibles, making a fool of myself, because I am an old fool. I’ve learned to accept the faults of my fellows, not expecting them to change their character for my convenience, to smile at others’ failings and laugh at my own, instead of getting irritated or angry. I remind myself how little progress I’ve made so far in getting rid of my own rough spots.
People make little progress improving, because as they get older they hate to move and loathe to sweat. They enjoy working their mouths, more than any other part of their bodies, talking or eating. Moreover, they constantly complain about getting fatter.
Outside of eating, most old people find basic bodily functions, including sex, uncomfortable or even painful. Passing urine or stool should be pleasurable. Plenty of spring water and fiber with your meals will help. Relax and enjoy.
Instead of sitting around, however, a few old people seek adventure traveling to far places, skydiving, hiking in jungles, glaciers, and deserts. Keeping my body at home, I seek the adventure of ideas.
Being old and free of work and family obligations, as I am, means being free to explore, create, and contribute something of value to the world. Not everybody can be Grandma Moses, but we all have something unique to offer, big or small, even if it’s only a joke and a laugh.
Laughter should come naturally as we age, because we’re becoming children again, free of responsibilities, secure in our pensions, free of worries about the future because we have no future. Relax, laugh, nothing worse than old age is coming to roost on your head–next is liberating death.
Seeking liberating death, perhaps, some of us senior citizens get gross gorging on food and lolling about, hardly moving; others get skinny and frail with loss of appetite, needing Metrecal supplements. I want to eat amply nutritious food with pleasure and exercise strenuously to get back the figure I had at nineteen (never mind the wrinkles). Go ahead and laugh.
Other old people find bodily functions, urinating, defecating, etc., difficult, even painful. So far at 77, I find enjoyment in these functions. I visualize a horse urinating, I doing the same; or a dog squatting at number one, I following suit (on the potty). I’d like to make out like a donkey at fornication, if only I had the equipment.
Sex is good for old people and donkeys, obviously. If you have the desire for it, you can satisfy your desire somehow with somebody or other, including yourself. Don’t worry about potency. I wrote enough about dalliances for the old in my essay, “Sex and the Senior” February, 2009; and I wrote more than enough about free love for everybody January, 2009, in “More Fulfilling Sex.” Sex for people over fifty five years should not be a serious issue. Most women after that age cease to arouse and most men fail to perform, with some exceptions; that is why sex is no longer a serious concern for us. Do you want to be serious or ridiculous?
Sex may be out for many oldsters, but romance never need go out of style, because romance thrives on imagination, not capability.
Romance, connections with other people, social activities benefit old people. Death may take away many of our old friends and relatives, but, if we take the time and make the required effort, we can win new friends and reach out to younger relatives.
Our last years are desperate years with wrinkles and blemishes, rough scaly skin, white hair or hair loss (except in nose and ears), flabby flesh, protruding belly, tumors and illnesses, falls, weakness, croaking voice, rheumy eyes, enlarged prostate or withered ovaries, weakening lungs, heart, stomach, kidneys, intestines, bones, tendons, brain, and teeth, all signaling impending death. Bah, it’s enough to make you take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them. The end is not for me yet; every trouble coming at me is an adventure to be played out and perversely enjoyed.
I’m amused at the checkout counter of the supermarket when the bagging clerk offers me help with my purchases to my car. I face discrimination. My white or missing hair betrayed my age to the clerk, and for that I would like to pick up and take out the little person together with my bags. Young people on the bus or metro sometimes give me their seat, but I’d rather stand up, stretch and exercise, making myself ridiculous. I’m old, not disabled.
Physical deterioration in old age is nothing compared to mental decline. We tend to become garrulous or silent, depending on our character. When we talk, we repeat ourselves ad nauseam. We forget common words and facts, increasingly so. We really have nothing new to say. We produce no new ideas in our work or our lives. We become strangers to imagination, to fancy, to romance. Novels and movies bore us. We prefer good old familiar politics, economics, and religions, not venturing beyond what we learned in high school or college. I try to remember that and to come up with something new once a day. I remember my dad.
My dad, who lived a hundred years, liked to repeat his opinion (an opinion he read somewhere) that we have a chronological age, a biological age, and a psychological age, which can be greatly different. My dad had a habit of walking twice a day, morning and afternoon, and as he walked he liked to repeat: “I’m getting younger; I’m getting younger.” I know I’m 77 years old in 2010, but on occasion I get out of bed feeling 17; then I go to shave and look in the mirror.
An old friend in her sixties felt like nineteen. She liked to go out to clubs and dance with young men. She confessed to me that sometimes she woke up in the morning to wash her face still feeling nineteen, looked in the mirror and screamed, Ahhh!
We avoid the shock of our old faces, because we normally age a little each day. In an old Star Trek episode, communications officer Uhura is totally immobilized by an alien intruder making her beautiful face appear obscenely old on her computer screen.
In the Star Trek episode “The Terrible Years,” Captain James T. Kirk and other officers are infected by a virus which ages them decades in a matter of weeks. Kirk, William Shatner in a superb performance, quickly becomes 66, wrinkled, racked by arthritis, and senile, forced to give up command of the Enterprise and the love of a gorgeous girlfriend. Of course, the good Doctor McCoy, “Bones”, comes up with a potion to cure Kirk and his officers from old age. Bones, where are you?
Young, middle-aged or old, all of us are usually like robots, repeating the same thoughts, acts, and sayings. As we get old, we become even more like automata, with little free will. My dad had a standard joke about his extreme old age, eschaton geras. He said he had become skatogeros, shitty old man. My brother, 80, says orgasmic instead of organic, and massages instead of messages. I’m sure I too have my boring repetitions, but I don’t notice them.
We bore our young children or grandchildren with the same lectures on ethics, the value of hard work, thrift, honesty, and caution. These professed behaviors got us to the success we have achieved and the help we’re able to give to our posterity. We forget we were like them when we were young.
No wonder young people despise us old people. They’re disgusted with us rightly, because we’re disgusting with our wrinkled skins, croaky voices, bald or white heads, stooped looks, protruding bellies, and bad breath. We fart often and expectorate. We shiver when they’re comfortable in the coolness of the evening. In the summer heat, we groan and puff and almost die, when the young run around barely sweating.
In my forties I got tinnitus, ringing in the ears, from an infection, the doctor said to me. About the same age, I had an eye exam to get new glasses for my nearsightedness. The doctor said I was farsighted and needed bifocals. As the years piled on, my throat tended to dry up, making swallowing difficult, my joints started creaking and hurting, my leg muscles cramping. Frequently now I got back pains, neck pains, stomach pains. My blood sugar, pressure, and cholesterol shot up. I became a prime candidate for a heart attack or stroke. Hello Old Age, indeed!
As the years roll, a day comes when a parent, brother, sister, or close friend decides to die. I lost my mother in 1997 to congested heart failure. She was 92 and I was 64, still her baby, her youngest child. Suddenly I was not a baby any more. I adored my mother; to me her death was devastating. For over a year, I cried uncontrollably when I thought of her. Two years later, my dad died at 100 years and 17 days in my house. He had been sick with nothing except old age. He had lost interest in everything, even eating. The doctor wrote “generalized system failure” on the death certificate. I had been taken care of my parents in their house or mine for many years. Now I was free—free to grow older myself, no longer a baby.
With the death of parents, siblings, or friends often comes social isolation and loneliness. You are retired. You don’t go to work with your fellows in an office or shop, in an organic social group. Those companions drift away to their own retired living, replaced by younger workers. Church fellowship may not inspire you. Children have their own families and preoccupations, often in other parts of the country or abroad. No wonder so many oldsters enter homes for the aged, not only because of disabilities, but because they are lonely.
I like being in the company of good people, but I’m alone often, though never lonely. I’ve found consolation in philosophy and in the writings of refined minds from all ages and all places. Great music is constantly pouring into my heart and mind when I’m alone. I admire the exquisite works of artists whenever I get the opportunity, searching for the little gem of Beauty captured in an inspired piece. I’m enthralled by the marvelous art of Nature on earth and in the sky. I travel every year to the Aegean islands of Greece. I write out my ideas. I cook, trying recipes or inventing my own. I tend my gardens in Greece and California. I visit with my daughters who live close to my house in California and love the company of my grandsons. I always have things to do and I’m never bored. I wish my life would go on forever.
When Death comes to me, I’ll be ready. He’s an old friend, because I choose to believe I’m not my body, Death coming to claim my body only, while I go on to another sphere. I’ll say to Death, old friend, I’ve enjoyed the joys of life; now you free my soul from its miseries to find a better existence.
In the meantime, age pushes me down to the ground each morning with greater force. I push back, rising to work and play. The gravity of years bears down on me, eventually to crush my body, but never my spirit. Am I not brave?
Death is coming soon; I’m resigned to death, but not resigned from life, now and in my last moment on earth. In her last days, my mom loved life as much as she ever did, admiring the works of Nature when I took her for a drive away from the hospital where she was dying. A golden California sunset would move her to cry, “Oh God, you have created everything with infinite wisdom!” (In Greek, “Theé mou, ta panta en sophia epieces.”) At his end, my dad quit a life he found simply tiring and boring.
I avoid boredom by working. More than the last moment of joy, I want the last moment of effort and accomplishment. I’m not alone in the world, and all doesn’t end with my death. My children and grandchildren continue living, and if not them, other children of men. If all men are gone, other living beings will carry on life on earth, I hope. The worst will come if we kill our planet completely with our thoughtless exploitation. Even then, other spheres hold life, I’m sure, in countless planetary systems of the universe. I can sense the existence of other beings elsewhere, some similar to our species, others very strange indeed, but still living beings.
Working forces me to exercise self discipline, often lacking in the very old, as it is in the young if the young are allowed their natural ways by parents. British wars were won in the playing fields of Eton. We have moved too far from the discipline of the British Empire, especially that discipline which is self imposed, the most valuable kind. Lack of self disciple means lack of self control, which gradually spreads to all areas of life. Some old people I know don’t even bother to get out of bed, watching television, eating, and having their diapers changed. Such behavior signals the end of life.
This insidious decay begins when people get their pension or their financial independence through enterprise, inheritance, or the lottery. Most people decide there’s nothing further they need to contribute to the world. Now they can lounge about drinking beer, chatting thoughtlessly, gaming, or traveling aimlessly. The cruise ships are packed with middle-aged and old couples constantly gorging on food with distended bellies, or smoking and drinking in the casino. Is that a good life for our last years? Hedonism is bunk; for me, effort as far as I can go is in order.
I wake up at 7 am every day, stretching, yawning and pleasantly entering my body again after a fine night’s dreaming. I work on the research I was trained to do in computer science and write, each hour as it comes. When tired, I rest; when rested, I work. I take some recreation when feeling low. At about 11 pm, I go to sleep, well satisfied with my day, stretching again and relaxing, making myself comfortable in bed like a cat, vacating my tired body for another night of wondering in the misty regions of the mind.
I cannot imagine not being able to do something useful for myself or others, no matter how old I get. I read that in the Himalayan Hunza Valley of Pakistan, people over a hundred years old still help with the chores, feeding chickens, tending sheep, or digging in the gardens. Such work by the aged may be necessary in Hunza for the survival of the family. It’s not necessary in our society, but I do work for my own survival of mind, body, and spirit, whatever I still possess.
My mother kept working as a dress fitter until she was 75. She didn’t want to stop working, but she could not hear well enough to get instructions from the customers. She refused to accept her hearing loss and get an amplifier for her ears, so she stayed home for several years, waiting for her boss to call her back to work. Finally I convinced her to apply for social security income. By that time she was also beginning to experience memory loss.
What if old age robs me of my memory, good sense, reason, what do I do then? My mother endured progressive dementia in her last years, and so did my dad in his last months. My dad always said life would not be worthwhile if his brain got soft. Anything else he could withstand except losing his mind. He felt this was happening and stopped eating until he died.
Eyesight and hearing gradually fade. Touch and taste drastically diminish. The brain itself rapidly or slowly loses its flexibility, adaptability and memory with aging, sinking into torpor. If I lose my mind after a long life, it is like death itself, with nothing to be done about it. I will be in the hands of family or social workers. My life will no longer be my business, so I don’t worry about dementia coming. I’ll try to find peace and quiet within myself, as my mother did, with prayer and meditation. I build up good habits and tools now, making notes about everything that concerns me, acquiring electronic equipment for assisted living, speech and optical recognition programs, cellular phones and computers, lenses, hearing aids, etc., although all my senses are still good for my age. I will endure to the end and set an example for others. Life is a precious gift; we cannot spurn it with ingratitude no matter what happens to us in the beginning or the end.
When we’re old we’re like over-ripe fruit or yellowing leaves ready to drop to the ground. It’s our time to make room for other living things.
Very old people like us are outside the range of human evolution, not needed by children or grandchildren. Genes have no use for us; we’re simply accumulators of debris, the detritus of our society, preserved for a while longer by modern medicine and hygiene, mummies like the Pharaohs of Egypt, in our pyramid houses, with antiquated furniture, dust, and cobwebs. Can we make our lives something different, a destiny far from the concerns of ordinary people with short life spans? Could it be that our old age is the vehicle for spiritual growth as our bodies shrivel?
If so, all the gray relics praying in churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques may be doing something more than than seeking solace from the specter of death. Unless I’m senile already, I may have a role in destiny. I seek a spiritual journey. I seek the adventure of ideas and new experiences, looking at the world upon awakening with fresh eyes like a five-year old child in the park, lost in the sights and sounds of an enticing world. I wander and wonder about God.
What we call God is a Being more dispassionate than compassionate, watching us with calm, keen, and objective eyes. Many experiments like life on earth go on in the universe on billions of planets. We’re not God’s only children; God has myriads of children.
As oldsters over 70, we’ve gone beyond biological evolution, perhaps to devote ourselves to community, humanity, all life on earth, to serve broader goals and ideals than personal gain (enough of that), or family welfare. We may contribute to the evolution of the human spirit beyond the body, with ideals, with a humanistic morality beyond religion.
The world waits for us to broaden our concepts of justice, beauty, balance, and truth for all humanity. We think, because we still exist.
Forget about burying yourself in a retirement community, or some old folks home, even a church community for the elderly. The world needs you to join the fight against the four horsemen: pestilence, war, pollution, and planetary warming.
As long as you have a strong purpose guiding your steps, you have cause to prolong your life, to become Methuselah, take resveratrol from red grape skins and restrict calories to activate your SIR2 longevity gene, because the world can use you. If you’re of no use, you’ll die earlier—it’s a law of life.