If youth knew, and age could

19 May

Last Sunday night this reviewer was bowled over by the vitality and wisdom of an autistic children’s dramatic performance. Everybody by Revolution Performing Arts. On Monday night, this reviewer was treated to New College students researching and performing original work on the past, present and future of the Arts in Swindon: Our Swindon.

So much for youth: they do seem to know. They do seem to ‘get it’. They do seem to care and to participate and to share. In these and other ways, Swindon Spring Festival is doing what it says on the tin and is celebrating arts, literature, and ideas.

As the packed, thirteen-day Festival reached Wednesday lunchtime of its second week, we queued to listen to the other end of life’s journey: old age. Carl Honoré, having built some international following with a previous book, In Praise of Slow urged us to, take a leaf out of the aforementioned youth and “smash it in our old age.” He urged us to forget about sitting on our sofas, alone at home and to, wherever possible, exercise and stay socially engaged. Exercise and social engagement are the closest thing to a ‘magic bullet’ for older people Carl enlightened us.

Carl Honoré Image © Fernando Bagué

As a starting point for his theories and practical suggestions about living a fulfilling life for longer, our tall, confident, eloquent speaker, spoke at length of his hockey epiphany. He scored a split-second timed, match-winning goal in a national tournament only to be psychologically knocked down on learning that he was the oldest member of the team at 48. That fact, that he was old played so much on his mind that it contributed to his team exiting the competition in the next game a few hours later.

So what is so tragic about that, we in the audience were led to ask ourselves? It was only after Carl’s exposition of what part his mindset about old age had played in his disabling disappointment that the pennies began to drop. Our society paints a bleak picture of old people and we buy into it: “On the wrong side … of 40” “Not bad … for your age”. An early illustration of that was his story of a Tinder user seeking playmate who chose the tactic of knocking 20 years of his 69 years in order to be more attractive.

Find out who you are and be that person entreated Honoré. Be the real you, be genuine, be true, true to you. Don’t let losing a hockey game shuffle you off towards even bingo and bowls for the rest of your life we were advised. Carl was driven to make his own personal journey into how he had got himself into the negative mindset and its potential self-fulfilling prophesy of settling for the seniors’ scrapheap.

He shared his worldwide research which revealed that old really is gold, in fact, those of us in it now, were living in the Golden Age of Ageing. We need not suffer cognitive zip loss. Older people are more at ease with themselves, more comfortable in our own skin and mind less about what others think of us – unlike our earlier worry-laden self-conscious years. We may have fewer friends, but those relationships are deeper and more meaningful than those in our early days.

As we grow older we are better able to form tighter and more life-enhancing friendships. We have settled on our relationships with siblings and other family members as over time, we have worked those out. Pete Townsend, we were told, reflected that he felt far better in his sixties than he did when he belted out on stage with The Who pop group My Generation with its striking lyric ‘I hope I die before I get old’.

We cannot use up all our creativity. Michelangelo, Matisse and Beethoven all produced some of their most outstanding works in old age. After the age barrier was lifted above 50 for the Turner prize, the 2017 prize was awarded to Lubaina Himid, born in 1954.

An 80 year old, who as a young man invented the lithium ion battery was part of the team who took it to the major next generation of battery technology. Old dogs do learn new tricks. We elders make the most use of suggestion boxes and form a noticeable proportion of start-up companies. If we use it, we don’t lose it, it just grows.

Plus, financially, it may surprise us to know, because there are of course way too many who are struggling, but as a statistical generalisation – We are loaded. We do have pensions (albeit a sector of women have had theirs snatched by six years). We are urged to move the dial – change the narrative: it is not that 17 percent of seniors will be affected by dementia (sad as that is) but that 83 percent of us will not get dementia. Our mindset is all.

The importance of honesty to our ourselves was emphasised. The speaker had to take on board that a 48-year-old hockey goal scorer may have to change direction a bit but set other goals, commensurate with bits falling off, but able to achieve so much.

This active, alert-minded audience of mainly elders, was bursting with comments and questions: why does housing get built in old age or young people’s silos and not mix it up a bit? Were the sixties generation of hippy revolutionaries, now being in their late 60s, giving the Establishment hell?

And a woman from the back, put us all in our place when she kindly admonished the speaker with “What on earth are you on about at a modest 50 years old? I didn’t get any aches and pains until I was 80 and am now here at this academic lecture at 86 last birthday” – she clearly had read Carl Honoré’s book, Bolder – Making the Most of our Longer Lives before he had even written it!

Words by Tony Hillier. Image © Fernando Bagué

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