Why 70 is NOT the new 50 and how to live contentedly in old age
“Don’t say you’re old! You’re not! Don’t you know that seventy is the new fifty?” This is what I hear repeatedly, ever more so as I approach the age of 75. Stating the plain fact that I am now an old man – a geezer, if you will – is tantamount to declaring that I am racketeer or a traitor. Indeed, in my detractors’ eyes, I am a traitor to the ‘forever young’ credo that adamantly insists we stretch the prime of life right up until our final breath. For them, giving in to old age is a sign of foolishness or worse, cowardice.
These ‘forever young’ zealots preach that now is time for us septuagenarians and octogenarians to get busy with all the projects left undone in our lives – to write that long-postponed novel, to finally learn Italian, to see the Pyramids, even to consummate that ultimate business deal. And along the way, just to keep old age safely at bay – or, at least, out of sight — we should get a facelift, don a testosterone patch, take 72-hour Cialis, and – gasp – take up jogging.
God knows, that route can be tempting. The prime of life certainly had a pleasant buzz to it, so why stop now? There is even a chance that we old folks are at the peak of some of our powers, say, our creative powers. Wouldn’t it be a waste to back away from a lifetime of accomplishments simply to be contentedly old? After all, is there really such a thing as being contentedly old or is that just another dodgy myth too?
Such were the questions that bedeviled this old geezer as he endured the taunts of these New Old Agers. So, having once been a student of philosophy and having remained a hellenophile since that time, I packed a suitcase full of philosophy books and returned to the Aegean island of Hydra, where I had resided for a year when I was a young man. Propelling me was my memory of the calm and appreciative way the old men on Hydra lived, plus my recollection of a lovely passage from the early Greek philosopher, Epicurus: “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.”
That felt like a good start. So for days on end, I sat in the harbor of Kamini, a small Hydra village, sipping retsina in Dimitri’s taverna as I lazily read a variety of philosophers and observed a table of men my age playing cards, joking with one another, and gazing off at the misty outlines of Peloponnesia.
Happily, some clear and compelling ideas about how to live a contented old age emerged for me during my sojourn. Chief among these is the value and availability of true friendship in this stage of life.
Reading the philosopher Immanuel Kant on our moral obligation to treat other people as ends, rather than treating them as means to an end, gave me an intriguing perspective on the four Greek old men playing cards at the terrace table across from me. It was obvious that none of these old men wanted anything from his friends other than their company. None wanted another to offer him a job, a deal, or an introduction to someone important.
Nope, no means to an end here, just the end in itself of being together, pure companionship and the palpable pleasure it gave to them all. Philosophers ranging from Epicurus to Montaigne agreed that this kind of unadulterated friendship is one of the greatest joys of life and it can only be enjoyed when you have stopped plugging away at trying to make something of yourself and start simply being yourself.
I noticed that frequently the group of old men would go silent as they all gazed off at the sea. Epicurus named this silent togetherness the height of friendship, a sublime communion of souls. Seeing these old friends smiling wordlessly at one another, I understood Epicurus’s assessment completely. I also realized that as long as the New Old Agers at home continued to pursue the ambitious goals of their prime years, such friendship would be unavailable to them.
Musing on this at my table at Dimitri’s taverna, I was beginning to appreciate the unique pleasures of old age. Happily for me, 75 is the new 75.
Travels with Epicurus: Meditations from a Greek Island on the Pleasures of Old Age is published by Oneworld in hardback, priced £11.99Tagged in: growing old, old age
Recent Posts on Notebook
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter