Monday, December 01, 2014

Book: How to Age by Anne Karpf


In 'How to Age', Anne Karpf makes a strong case to refresh our understanding of aging. The central concern is that we tend to see age as an obliterator of functionality and identity. Time is viewed as the thief of our youth, a force that leads us along a path of little more than stagnation, decline and then, obscurity. Being 'old' is the negative of 'young' and 'new' and so carries negative connotations. Karpf calls for a depathologising of the 'condition' and the received ideas around aging and e.g. how an older person should act, dress, sound, etc. Karpf writes that being curious, surprised and engaged is not the sole prerogative of the young. As we mature, she says, we don't need to spend our lives being afraid of aging and fighting the inevitable with therapies, botox, denial and endless supplementation, or alternatively retiring to a world of sudoku puzzles. On the flip side, the author also highlights how easy it is to slip into the mindset of fighting the ravages of time, although even those who do take up the battles must know, at the back of their minds, that they are warring with the inevitable.

Instead, Karpf recommends that we could apply a bit of imagination to the notion of aging and see it something that heightens our individuality, accepting the reality of the negative side. We can age zestfully and adopt a more fluid notion of aging, 'and we can continue to grow so long as we continue to breathe'. The author astutely observes that the traditional rites of passage that previously served as milestones for aging (e.g. moving house, buying a car, marriage, jobs) are less rigid than for previous generations.

This doesn't mean that we should resist aging, afterall aging and death are natural, but we should resist ageism. We are reminded that we can see aging is a privilege instead of as a burden.

By 2050, it is predicted that 20% of the world's population will be over 65 years old. Knowing that we are all going to make this journey into old age, if we are lucky, we should cultivate what is important, fostering and develop qualities and interests to help us along the way. As we age, Karpf notes, we are also increasingly liberated from other people's expectations and so can develop our own sense of self.

Karpf concludes that "the best way of ageing well turns out to be the same as living well." The American poet May Sarton gave a lot of thought to the subject (of death). As usual, she put it simply: 'One must live as though one were dying - and we all are, of course - because then the priorities become clear.'

All in all, this is a great little book.

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A few quotes:

"We can help the process if we think of ourselves like wine connoisseurs laying down bottles that will improve with age; similarly we can try to foster in ourselves qualities that deepen and enrich over the years. These qualities differ for each of us but for most people they include finding enduring sources of meaning - in work, or through relationships, interests or making a social contribution; getting to know themselves; making genuine contact with other people; developing the capacity to love - whether people, ideas or experiences. These are essentially internal resources that can be cultivated and drawn upon throughout life."

"Pragmatic optimism like this is all I am advocating here. It's much easier to adopt this view if we don't take a long lifespan for granted, but recognise instead that it isn't given to the majority of people in this world, especially the developing world: that to age is in fact to be blessed. The idea of age as a privilege seems radical in a culture where it's so often seen as a burden, but it's an invaluable reminder of how relatively recent, and limited, widespread longevity is."

"Those who age best are those who travel lightest, who can jettison the prescriptive ideas they've cleaved to at one stage of their life when they find them ill-suited to another."

Cicero: 'The great affairs of life are not performed by physical strength, or activity, or nimbleness of body, but by deliberation, character, expression of opinion. Of these old age is not only not deprived but, as a rule, has them in greater degree.'


A 100-year old woman, when interviewed on radio, was asked if she had any regrets. 'If I'd known I was going to live to be 100' she replied, 'I'd have taken up the violin at 40. By now I could have been playing for 60 years!'

 Goya 'Aun aprendo' (I am still learning)


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