We all go through many phases in our lives, from birth to puberty, from adulthood to marriage, from parenthood to ageing. Some ‘life events’ leave us with happier experiences than others. Marriage may lead to divorce but it also may lead to parenthood. Puberty may lead to confusion but it also may lead to ‘girlfriend or boyfriend troubles.’ Often-times, it seems the one life event that is less enticing, more treacherous, and most uninvited, is that of ageing.

At certain stages of our lives we seem to feel like we will live forever, having no sense of our own mortality. Yet by the time we reach middle-age, more often than not we start to look inward, to assess our own lives, what we have (or have not) achieved, what we really want out of life, and how long we have to achieve it. For we realise that life is not eternal. It has a beginning and an end and a big chunk in between.

So how do we ensure that we traverse the many facets of living, the many facets of ageing, with goodwill, good humour, and a lack of that thing called ‘regret?’

The thing is, we don’t. The hardest thing of all is to enter the ageing process without regret. Those two words ‘if only’ are often the precursor to a sentence we’d rather leave on the shelf. ‘If only I’d decided to buy that house,’ ‘if only I’d invited that girl out when I had the chance,’ ‘if only I had been more adventurous,’ ‘if only I’d tried harder to save my marriage,’ ‘if only I’d had that third child.’ There is an endless list of regrets.

The philosopher and author, Daniel Klein, in his book ‘Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life They Change It,’ says that at the age of seventy-five, all he really wants out of life is to sit quietly on his back porch looking out at the setting sun with his dog by his side (and, of course, the company of his wife and a good drink). That’s not asking for too much, is it? He says that we should shy away from living the life of regret at all cost, for the only loser in that game is ourselves.

Epicurus had the right idea when he espoused the pursuit of happiness, otherwise known as ‘hedonism,’ as the central meaning of life. Without going in to detail here, he suggested we ought to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals so that we can ensure time is not lost on arguing a point we believe to be true. Like-minded people are bound to agree and our life will be the happier for it.

Epicurus: Nothing is enough for the man for whom enough is too little

Epicurus did not believe in an after-life. Yet he advised not to concentrate one’s thoughts on death for that would surely come in time. Rather, we should concentrate our thoughts on making the most of the life we had to live, for whilst we were still living it, it should be lived well.

In other words (those of Epicurus himself);

Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.

What is Epicurus really saying here? Again, it’s best it comes from the man himself. As he explains it succinctly;

Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

For most Australians, one thing they have to look forward to is the expectation of a long life. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has published figures which clearly show that Australians can expect to live longer now than at almost any other time. They report that;

In the 1960s, life expectancy at birth was 74 years for girls, and 67 years for boys. The latest mortality data indicate that girls born in 2013 can expect to live to the age of 84, and boys to 80. Life expectancy is increasing both at birth and over the course of a person's life, as most Australians enjoy greater standards of living and better access to high-quality healthcare.

The same trend is happening in other first world nations, such as the US and the UK.

Putting to one side the economic impact of the ageing process, there seems to be an emotional or attitudinal impact also. How does the ageing population feel about their own mortality? How do they feel about their sense of self-worth and their role in modern society? Do they feel like they’ve achieved and produced through their life-time? Or do they feel that, if only they had their time over again, they would have done things differently?

I’m talking specifically about the section of the population that’s sixty-five and over, around retirement age, who may have had a busy life but are now ‘slowing down,’ both mentally and physically.

Walking around my own neighbourhood, I see a number of property developments for the over-50’s. I see more medical practices than ever before, an over-servicing of older patients, and a ‘gluttony,’ if you will, of tourist ‘meccas,’ all aimed at those who, apparently, have time to spare, those who have retired from the ‘daily grind.’

Yet this same group of people seem to be healthier, happier, and more physically agile than ever before. Thomas Peris, in The Scientific American, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-oldest-old-are-astonishingly-healthy/, writes;

...when I became a fellow in geriatrics, I was surprised to find that the oldest old were often the most healthy and agile of the senior people under my care. In fact, the morning I was scheduled to interview a 100-year-old man as part of a research project, he told me we would have to delay the visit. He had seen 19 American presidents take office, and he would be busy that morning voting for the next one.

So are we only as young as we feel? Or are we only as old as we think? The older we feel, surely the easier it is to convince ourselves we only have to live out the rest of this life. The younger we think, surely the easier it is to convince ourselves that we can still play an active role in our own life and the lives of those around us. Now, a broken leg, sciatica, osteoporosis, or chronic kidney failure may affect our ability to be physically active, but I’m sure you get the idea.

I know author Dr. George Simon PhD and Professor Ellen Langer do. Dr. Simon speaks of a New York Times article that mentioned a study conducted by Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, on the effects of a person’s environment and mental attitude on their vitality and physical health. It suggests that many things we put down to the general consequences of ageing may be attributable to and significantly influenced by our own perceptions and attitude.

The Langer study (referred to as the ‘Counterclockwise study’) was based on establishing two groups of generally healthy men in their seventies. One group would go about their normal daily lives, maintaining their standard routine. The other group, referred to as the ‘Time Warp’ group, would enter an environment in which they were to reminisce about ‘the good old days,’ and actually live as if they were there. This would include dressing as they did back then, watching movies and television programs from that time, and surrounding themselves with photos and memories of a time now past.

So what was the result? The study showed that the ‘Time Warp’ group out-performed the other group on measures of energy, strength, memory, dexterity and so on. The resulting conclusion is that how young or old we think, and feel, is significantly dependent on our frame of mind. Although carried out in 1979, it was the beginning of a serious train of thought based on the premise ‘you are only as old as you feel.’ At the website of the Langer Mindfulness Institute (see http://langermindfulnessinstitute.com/counterclockwise-research/) it explains;

...By essentially turning back time, their mental health, physical strength, cognitive abilities, and youthful appearance all improved. The results are consistent with many of our research findings since that time.

The original counterclockwise study with mature adults has now been conducted in three countries (US, Great Britain, and South Korea) all yielding very powerful results concerning possibilities for enhanced functioning for older adults. Physical health, cognitive abilities and general well-being were significantly enhanced.

Further detail can be found in Langer’s book, ‘Counterclockwise.’

Does this mean the lady, hunched over, looking osteoporotic, with a walking frame down at the local shopping centre, could, if she thought differently, be enjoying a nice walk with her family picking up a present or two for the grand-kids? And does this mean there’s an inherent difference in the frame of mind of the ageing man who, when asked if he’d like to go out for lunch with his younger friend, says;

“No, not today George, I’m too tired,’

as opposed to the man of the same age and similar health who says;

‘Sure, George – I’d love to join you. When do we leave?’

The ageing role can be considered, at least in some instances, to be not all that different from what has commonly been referred to as ‘the sick role.’ Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist, developed the concept that people who are sick are devoid of the need to follow the societal regimen applicable to those active and productive members of society. In other words, they are not required to be productive or carry out normal social responsibilities.

This could well apply to the ageing, too. Retirement means one no longer has the societal responsibility to be productive. The wheel can also turn in terms of the parent-child relationship, with children caring for their ageing parents as they reach a stage of incapacity.

It also provides them with the ability to feel younger than their years, in other words, to 'think young.'

Yet many members of our ageing population, including those involved in Langer’s initial study, may still be perfectly capable of productively contributing to society and managing their own affairs well into their old-age. Not only does this level of physical and mental capacity preclude them from the ‘ageing role,’ such as it is, but it also provides them with the ability to feel younger than their years, in other words, to ‘think young.’

What do we have to do to think young? The first step would be an ounce of common sense with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Don’t talk to a nutritionist. They’ll have you on the latest fad diet to lose weight whilst ensuring their pocket is bulging. Eat well but eat sensibly. Enjoy your food, but don’t go overboard. Have that hot dog. Have that chocolate. Don’t eat half a dozen hot dogs and don’t eat the whole box of chocolates.

And you don’t need to be a teetotaller, either. Alcohol is fine, in moderation. In fact, anything, within reason, in moderation, is recommended. And a little bit of the hokey-pokey probably wouldn’t hurt either.

Make sure you throw in some exercise too. The old Vitamin D in the form of a little ray of sunshine never hurt anyone.

Yet there’s no magic formula. As Dr. Simon articulates, in http://counsellingresource.com/, the best thing older people can do is place themselves in surroundings that are “youthful and energetic.” If we do this, we tend to feel better, look and feel younger, and age more gracefully.

When my mother was a little girl she was asked by her primary school teacher what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her response was that she wanted to be “a healthy old woman.” Well, she’s achieved her objective. She’s healthy, and happy, but is yet to prove to those around her that she fits the criteria of being ‘old.’ For, as she often tells me, you’re only as old as you feel.

Think young, and you might feel the same.

Published by Owen Tilley