Reviewed by Catherine O’DeaSome years ago I was drawn to an article entitled ‘Experiencing Ageing’ by Peggy Heeks in The Friend, an English Quaker journal where the author was reporting on a series of interviews she had done with 50 people aged 75-plus. As she put it, ‘ageing – like life – is a complex business, but attitudes did group themselves into three categories’. These were:
1. The majority who felt full of fear and under threat from several directions, including insufficient income, health, housing and isolation.
2. Some who felt helpless and were often in care homes, and
3. Just a few who were engaging with ageing, seeing it as a major developmental stage and ‘as a time for spiritual growth, to repair what’s gone wrong and leave life better than when you entered, in right relationship with yourself, other people and God’.
The thought of the important developmental stage, or as Eric Erikson put it ‘Integrity versus Despair’ interested me a lot and this book, which I was given later, takes up the same themes and greatly expands the last one in a truly inspiring manner.
Marie de Hennezel is a French psychologist and psychotherapist who sets out to explore the subject of ageing and dying – she calls it ‘a meditation on the art of growing old’. To my mind, she starts from a very sound position of wanting to see the pain but not getting caught up in the prevailing negative views encapsulated in phrases like ‘Old age is not for sissies’ and ‘Now it’s downhill all the way’. Then she also wants to see the joy and freedom that is possible without dizzying off into euphoria. So, pain, ill health, isolation and fear, particularly of dementia, are not glossed over and, in fact, she is very open about how, for many months after engaging with this she was mired in depression. Then, two events set her back on track and she is able to continue on the main theme of the book and I think that a brief description of them gives a glimpse of what she is about.
The first was a story of how she was riding with a friend on one of the white horses of the Camargue in the south of France through the marshes there, when her horse sank into a hole up to its belly in mud. She got out by clinging to the saddle and letting the horse take them both to safety. This lead to realising the Jungian symbolism of the horse – strength and vitality, a white one – spiritual energy which pulled her from her stuck place of paralysis and fear of ageing by enabling her to ‘trust my inner dynamism – by trusting the life that still carries me’.
The second event was her meeting with a doctor, Olivier de Ladoucette, a specialist in Alzheimer’s disease and a teacher of a university course on the psychology of ageing who is quoted at intervals through the book. I chose just a few things associated with him that stood out.
One is his assertion that increased life expectancy means of a healthy life, not, as we tend to assume of a dependent life, providing that we eat well, exercise and socialise. Then he wrote a book called Staying Young is all in the Mind, in which he says that the heart does not age and believes we can all be educated to manage old age well, no matter how pessimistic and sour the previous way of being in the world. As to that previous reference to joy and freedom, I’m confident that the author would appreciate Joan O’Donovan of Eckhart House’s way of putting it that it comes when we relinquish the Achieving Ego and embrace the Receiving ego.
Yes, that is a very brief glimpse of the subject which the author covers widely and from many angles, all of which are worth pondering. I found it, as I said, inspiring as, incidentally I did her book about her work in a hospice called Intimate Death which has now been reprinted. Even though they are in translation from the French she comes across as writing movingly and well.
Was there anything I was unsure of? Well, I suppose I found the theory ‘many of my colleagues who are psychotherapists start from the hypothesis that Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive way to avoid confronting the approach of death’ a bit glib. Also, there is not perhaps sufficient recognition of the fact of the huge disparities in income, access to health care and opportunities generally which can affect a person’s ability to age well as much as their attitude.
Why review this book? How many of us have worked with people aged over 65? That is, I think, beside the point because it is relevant to all of us at any age because, to quote de Ladoucette again, if elderly people are unhappy ‘they suffer above all from the way we view them’ often having the ‘disastrous impression that they have become useless’. Actually, he exempts ‘ultra- Catholic Ireland where the old have their place’ and there is more mixing between the generations. Is that so? And, as far as clients are concerned, the percentage of older people in this country is slowly increasing and it is therefore incumbent on all of us to expand our knowledge of the area.
And, by the way, the title ‘The Warmth of the Heart prevents the Body from Rusting’ is a song sung every morning by the very old and happy people of Okinawa, Japan!