The Plague-Ground – Old Age

Last week I visited my two half-brothers. Both have dementia and live in long-term care, one in the Sunnybrook Veterans’ Wing in Toronto (he served in Korea), and the other in a retirement home north of Kingston. One is 89 and the other 86. One is fairly coherent, the other has a hard time with phrases, so sticks to single words. Both are actively planning to ‘escape.’

So this is how it ends.

I am 71, my wife, 77. We’re both still working, still active, proud outliers on the bell curve. We’ll keep working and loving and exploring until we can’t.

What that strategy lacks in subtlety it makes up in energy. True, we’ve got Living Wills, Advance Directives and supportive, sentient adult children.

Besides, Jean is a MAiD doctor. She provides medical assistance in dying. So the subject of death is not exactly a stranger, either to our experience or our conversations. Still, it’s hard not to wonder exactly how we can hold on tight to our days ahead and make them stretch longer.

New ideas about aging, retirement and death may not delay any of those things.

But at least they can help reframe the fear that the end is near. As they say, a problem redefined is a problem half-solved.

This week  I came across two of these new ideas that struck me as original, doable and somehow comforting.

The first is by the model and social entrepreneur Sinead Bovell in an article in the Globe and Mail. While she writes mainly about how artificial intelligence can make our later years so much happier, she mentions in passing the Japanese idea of ‘ikigai’, which is “the reason you wake up in the morning.” If you have a good reason, you’ll live longer. Period. Yes, diet and exercise count, as does a strong sense of community. But ikigai, “the thing that drives you and is fundamentally critical to your existence,” counts for more.

A friend once told me that people our age “just want to stay in the game.” The game may be big-time law, or teaching, or home-making. It will change for sure, especially if you walk away from it abruptly when you retire, which means you have to quickly find another game. It seems the trick is to change your habitual, comfortable and often deeply meaningful game for another which you may not be good at and aren’t sure you want to play.

The other new idea about aging came from a piece by Jemina Kelly in The Financial Times. The headline says it all: “Let’s count age backwards as we get older.”

She believes that as we approach death chronological age makes less sense. The athletic 78-year-old could well have another 20 years in him; the doddery 70-year-old perhaps 10.

Counting how many years we have left may feel weird, but actuaries already do it, and we tend to underestimate how long we have left to live. Says the Institute for Fiscal Studies, “those in their 50s and 60s underestimate the chances of reaching 75 by a fifth.”

The other surprise is that our life expectancy rises for every year we manage to stay alive. In other words, the longer we live, the longer we can expect to live. An odd, counterintuitive idea, but I’ll take it.

The third surprise is the huge role that our attitude plays in how long we’ll live. She quotes the polling firm Ipsos-MORI: “On average, people who are negative about old age die seven and a half years before people who are positive.”

So, at a time when death has come knocking a bit too often, it’s comforting that how we think about it and how we frame our lives around it, can distract it a little.

As for me, I’ll fall back on Freud’s famous dictum:  “Love and work…work and love. That is all there is.”

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20 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Old Age”

  1. There is nothing quite like having something to wake up to or for, whether it is an avocation, a loved one or a sunny disposition. You lose that, you fall in to darkness. Live life to your fullest for as long as you are able, eat well and stay healthy – mentally and physically. Is it that simple?

  2. Wendela Roberts

    Totally agree. My husband Al is 80 and is still working. I went to law school in my late 50s, was called to the bar at 60. I’m now retired (73) due to health issues, but have a very busy and engrossing sewing hobby making handbags, clothing, and of course these days, masks for hospitals. Life is good. Al and I can’t wait to get up in the morning. First cup of strong coffee also helps.

    1. Anne – I didn’t know the word until I’d read about it a few days ago. Now it is the “word of my life!”


  3. Michele Carroll

    Hey Bob,
    Thanks for all your great blogs. Sent several of my friends Wade Davis. We’re all getting better acquainted with the idea of death. Work and love yes, but as you write our work will change. I have recently taken up landscape painting which will be a slow and hopefully steady act of learning, imagination and creativity. You and Jean are truly an inspiration.

    1. Michele — Thanks for sending friends to hear Wade. He is a talking machine !
      You do landscape painting; Jean does woodworking.
      Cheers and thanks.

  4. Agreeing with you totally! Last year, I retired from the charity I founded and ran for 25 years across Canada, only to be totally ostracized by the new management. I fell into a deep black hole until I realized that no one can take away my ikigai: my lifelong addiction to empowering underserved kids. My new program called LEAD (Listen, Empathize, Act, Drive) already has kids across Canada finding their own ikigai as they lead the future for us all! With ikigai, we are timeless and ageless.

    1. Hi Marilyn,
      Sorry to hear about the new management. They don’t seem to do their job and never approached me to continue contributions. I admired the work you did with those kids and was so impressed with your organization. You did great work. Many years ago I talked to two girls who were singing in the choir and painting Christmas cards. They loved you! Good luck with your new endeavour.

  5. So good, Bob. And so true. My mom’s 86 and has always been busy and active. 2 years ago, she fractured her ankle and had to have surgery and because she lives alone – spent 2 months in rehab. Couple that with all the pain meds they stuffed her with (not a good plan for a recovered addict) and she vanished into herself. Muddled, depressed, angry, no purpose or motivation to move forward. She’s always been a storyteller, so to give her a reason to get out of bed in the morning, I found a publisher in Halifax who was willing to have look at some of her stories to see if they’s work for a kids book. Fast forward after some blood sweat and tears (mostly mine!) and 3 weeks ago Hambone: Why Pigs Have Curly Tales was launched. It got her back to being herself and being engaged in life. She’s been doing media interviews left, right and centre in Saskatchewan and is now planning book #2. She’s met so many people and feels so proud of herself. So yes, emphatically ikigai! 🙂

  6. I love these photos of you and Jean, you continue to be inspirations to Peter and me from our time together in Jean’s Marines to the present. This blog is so much more positive than a piece that you wrote a few years ago which still haunts me to this day…..counting how many Christmases, birthdays, etc. we may have left. I prefer this take on aging!

  7. Linda Granfield

    Bob, I’m sorry to read this about your brother at Sunnybrook. It was an honour to include his story in my Korean War book. Please extend my best wishes to him?
    And thank you for this particular column. I’ll begin a new search for my ikigai! Hi to Jean!

    1. Linda — I will indeed give your best wishes to Jim when I see him next, which will be later this month. He’s a man defined by his defiance and will,
      and to see those flames both burning out is sad, I have to tell you.
      Thanks for connecting.

    2. Ikigai here we come!
      Of course it’s easier to get out of bed in August than it is in January, so let’s hope this doesn’t continue much longer.

    3. I’d forgotten about that Toronto Star piece about counting the days. Then again, I was still recovering from heart surgery. You’re absolutely right. This view of things is better. Cheers. Bob

    4. That’s an amazing story about your mom, Trish. It shows that ikigai can just land from the sky when you’re least expecting (but vey much needing)

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