Thursday, February 4, 2010

Engagement as Strategy

Following on from yesterday's post on the projected increase in dementia sufferers over the next few decades came a very interesting Horizon programme called (ironically) 'Don't Grow Old'. The thrust of the programme seemed to be that, although certain strategies could assist longevity (calorie restriction is one I that I shuddered at, looking at the joyless existence of its practitioners), it ultimately came down to a combination of good genes and attitude. Good genes - that is a hereditary predisposition to live to a good old age - is something that will continue to be a matter of luck until the precise suspects are identified and utilised in gene therapy.
It's no surprise that people who are happier live longer, but that in itself is a bit of a circular argument in that it is easier to be cheerful and upbeat if you don't have to live in pain or with any other sort of physical, mental or psychological burden. Good health, as noted before is mostly a matter of genetic good fortune, ergo happiness is inextricably linked to a good genetic hand.
Interestingly enough, researchers noted that there was a section of the very elderly population (i.e. healthy centenarians) who defied the received wisdom on not smoking, drinking or eating 'naughty foods'. Despite being told of the horrors that lie in wait for those foolish to enjoy a pack of Capstan full-strength a day, brandy in your mug of tea or butter on everything, they looked a picture of sanguine lucidity, positively relishing their daily treats and with no intention of relinquishing them.
A third and very important factor seemed to be that of expectation: people who saw themselves as being old pretty much fulfilled their own expectations. In an bold experiment, a featured gerontologist removed the carers from some conspicuously doddery old men and made them live for a week in an environment where they were made to fend for themselves. They had strict instructions to live just as they had done a couple of decades previously, and to that end were provided with props that reminded them of that earlier time. Amazingly enough, at the end of the week, all the men who had taken part had improved in physical, mental and psychological strength. Their attitude had changed from expecting help and a disinclination to push themselves to a far more positive 'can-do' state. Their balance, co-ordination and alertness had improved dramatically, they had put on weight and even looked younger and were mostly unwilling to return to their former dependent state. It seemed to be not only a real case of 'if you don't want to lose it use it' but 'if you want, you can get it back again' which is most encouraging!

I look at my parents who, in their eighties, are very active and completely independent and see a positive model of old age. My father is still bright as a button and is fascinated by politics (I swear Prime Minister's question time can't start without him!) and my mother acts as a voluntary guide in a civic trust property and has a voracious interest in history (she is currently 'doing' the Crusades). They get plenty of exercise with their dogs, plan holidays and diversions and generally have a tremendous appetite for life.

However, my husband's parents (in their sixties) seem to be slipping almost gratefully into old age. Having got her bus-pass on the dot of sixty, my m-i-l declared that 'was now old'. Their curtains are drawn tight shut by dusk and the doors bolted. They never go away on holiday preferring day trips (always to the coast, 40 miles away, on the train as my f-i-l prefers not to drive) and their world is regulated by mealtimes (always 'home for tea') and grocery shopping. They have no hobbies, no pets and no outside interests and, as far as I can tell, read only the local newspaper, being politically and intellectually disengaged. They are lovely, kind people, but I fear that their old age (which they have already welcomed with opened arms) will be long and increasingly dull and, with their lack of mental stimuli, I am not a little concerned at the prospect of them being affected by dementia.

I myself am not particularly bothered by the thought of old age: I am not particularly vain, so I don't mourn excessively the fading of my looks as some women (and indeed men) do. I would certainly never any countenance cosmetic 'procedure' more extreme than buying a new mascara. Having abandoned the gym as boring, my interests are now such that they can be carried into extreme old age (as long as I can still see - I would consider surgery to ensure this): in fact many Bible scholars are very long-lived. I am a bit on the heavy side, but can still run when I need to, and it is a medically counter-intuitive fact that women live longer if they are mildly overweight (query: protects against osteoporosis which finishes off many a skinny old bird). I enjoy a glass of wine, bar of chocolate and the occasional Gitanes or cigar and I have no intention of giving any of these things up.

The Husband's main hobby (competitive indoor rowing) however, relies on him being in tip-top physical condition, which he has to work very hard at during his four sessions a week at the gym. He has always prided himself on his physique and to this end spends an additional few hours lifting weights. He used to play the piano (beautifully), but this became sidelined in his quest for peak fitness. This complete somatisation plus the unhelpful paradigm of his parents is, to say the least, a bit worrying. If you perceive yourself a mainly a body which, even with the best genetic hand will indubitably wither and age, your old age not only be devoid of the focus of your younger years, but will also be tainted with nostalgia and regret that the best has gone.

An ability to see old age as just another phase rather than a full-stop to the life that has gone before, and a handful of interests seem to be vital in ensuring a 'good' old age.

Engagement - yes, that's what it is - a willingness to engage, and be engaged by life.

1 comment:

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