I recently travelled to northern Spain to celebrate a 70th birthday; it seemed somehow appropriate to spend the time looking at Romanesque and Gothic architecture! Gone are the days when reaching ‘three score years and ten’ was considered a good age; a recent survey found that people are happiest and most content in their 70’s. Buoyed by this news I ‘googled’ the net looking for modern day septuagenarians who had achieved impressive personal ‘firsts’ in their seventies and immediately came up with two.
At the age of 75, and almost 50 years after becoming the first man to sail single-handedly around the globe, Robin Knox-Johnston has embarked on another solo challenge – becoming the oldest ever entrant in the 3,500 mile Route du Rhum race. “I am just not ready for the slippers, pipe and television” he said “I am doing this race because I bloody well want to.”
Also aged 75, the renowned playwright and theatre director, Israel Horovitz, is making his debut as a feature director. The movie ‘My Old Lady’ (also written by Horovitz) stars Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas, so no gentle entry into the film star world.
Sadly, most of my google hits were about the problems of ageing – endless websites listing ‘medical conditions’ that can strike ‘the elderly’ (which appears to be anyone over the age of 50!) at any time. “If you’re not fit and you fall, you cannot get up again, whereas if you’re active, you can.” Wow, that’s staggeringly informative. We are now entitled to a shingles jab but renting hire cars abroad and locating reasonably priced travel insurance can still prove tricky once you’ve passed that magic number 70.
I partly blame the physician, Sir William Osler, who at the age of 55 in 1905 stated that: “…the effective, moving, vitalizing work of the world is done (by people) between the ages of 25 and 40.” He went on to say that men over the age of 40 were ‘useless’ and as for those over 60: “…there would be an incalculable benefit in commercial, political and professional life if, as a matter of course, men stopped work at this age.” Until recently neurologists believed that brain cells died off without being replaced and psychologists maintained that the ability to learn ‘trudged steadfastly downwards through the years’.
It is only relatively recently that research on ageing and wisdom has come up with far more positive correlations between a healthy body and an active mind. It’s good to read reports that state: “…Older people make more use of higher order reasoning schemes that emphasise the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise and recognize the limits of knowledge.”
All very heartening but then I discover another 70’s ‘achievement’. At 75, the novelist, Margaret Atwood, has just published a new collection of short stories, ‘Stone Mattress’. One of the stories concerns an uprising of young people against the residents of an old folks’ home. In a recent newspaper article she writes: “There are lots of people who don’t have jobs and those people are young. When you have a lot of young people who don’t have jobs, you are going to get a lot of energy of an angry kind. That anger” she continues, “will be directed at older people, who own a disproportionate share of the world’s riches… Currency is called ‘currency’ for a reason: it has to circulate.”
Ah well, just when it seemed safe for us oldies to flaunt the ‘wisdom of age’ and spend some hard earned cash on sky diving trips and university degrees it would appear not to be a terribly ‘wise’ thing to do at all!