Few things disturb or frighten people so much as the prospect of being old and alone. Indeed, a great deal of human activity is directed towards avoiding such a fate. It is often the reason people stick with unhappy marriages, for example, have children they don’t really want, and continue working beyond retirement age. But old age and even physical isolation can bring happiness and joy as well. Like so many things in life, preparation is key.
The British novelist Kingsley Amis once wrote “no pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of an extra two years in a retirement home” – an opinion many share. Indeed, this sort of thing is said so often it has become a cliché; tell a group of people to take better care of their health and you can be sure someone will reply “who wants to live forever!” Such thinking is both dangerous and idiotic. Maybe you don’t want to live forever, but neither do you want to live for years in a broken, failing body. Neglecting your health will not result in a quick, painless death. On the contrary, it will lead to years of unnecessary suffering and immobility. Aside from the physical discomfort, not being able to move about, to get outside and walk in natural light, to socialize etc. will drag down your mood and leave you more lonely and miserable than you need to be.
Unfortunately, not only do people repeat clichés about not wanting to live forever, they also assume that chronic illness and physical decay are a natural part of ageing. Obviously ageing takes its toll, but, according to Dr Charles Clark, author of The Age Revolution: The Drug-Free Plan to Stay Fit, Young, and Healthy, “Most of the processes of ageing are actually a result of the way we live and are not inevitable.” Not only does he believe that a radical overhaul of one’s diet and exercise regimen can stall the ageing process, but that in some ways it can even reverse it.
Apart from the obvious tips, like giving up smoking and alcohol, eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, and doing all you can to control stress and improve sleep, Clark draws on the latest research to warn against other mistakes. For example, it is now known that inflammation causes all sorts of problems and increases the risk of heart disease, cancer etc, as well as making exercise more difficult. One way to control inflammation is through supplements like turmeric and fish oil. He also points out that while exercise is good, too much exercise, or exercise that is extreme and demanding, can actually harm you. So keep your exercise gentle but regular. As Clark himself writes, “the body loves routine.”
Make health your number one priority. Being old and lonely may be tough, but being old, lonely, and ill, is much, much worse. Be strict with yourself. In fact, be a health freak! Even if you continue to indulge in the occasional whisky or cream cake, you could also commit to 48 hour periods in which you literally eat nothing but raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and water. Not only will this do wonders for your health, it will also lift your mood, making you more inclined to exercise and socialize. And, because you will look and feel better, you will be more chatty, upbeat and happy, making you better company and thus more popular.
Art and Creativity
Few things will give your days more structure or meaning than a creative pursuit. Is there anything you’ve always wanted to try? Maybe you were once good at something, like writing poetry or painting watercolors, but set it aside to raise children or pursue a career. Could you take such hobbies up again? How about dusting off that old guitar and writing a few songs? Remember, true artists do not write or paint or sing because they wish to be rich and famous. They do so because it thrills them to create something, and because they enjoy the sense of continual improvement. A creative outlet may also prove therapeutic – a way to channel or sublimate emotion.
The novelist Jeanette Winterson once wrote that “the healing power of art is not a rhetorical fantasy…language became my sanity and my strength.” And the number of people whose lives have been quite literally saved by the arts is incalculable. Literature, for example, not only consoles through beauty, it also interprets life for you, making sense of the pain and reassuring you that others have been through the very same thing. Art lifts you out of yourself and connects you to others, living, deceased, and yet to be born. John Keats’ famous poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, for example, written in 1819, describes the poet standing before a 2,000 year old Greek vase, meditating on how this beautiful object will some day comfort and console others.
Spirituality and the Natural World
“Spirituality” is a contentious word, and one that means different things to different people. In its loosest and most general sense, it involves a sense of belonging and meaning. You needn’t believe in revealed truth, or supernatural beings, or even a life after death, to be a “spiritual person”, however. Secular physicists and biologists, for example, will often speak with an almost mystical awe when describing the wonders of nature. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, the evolutionary biologist, wrote of the world’s oldest fossils as “holy objects,” while Einstein famously said that no true science was possible without a sense of the mystical.
If, like Gould and Einstein, you have no religious faith yourself, popular science may be a good substitute. The more sensitive and broad-minded science writers not only write with awe and wonder, but also with a strong sense of the numinous and transcendent, revealing just how deeply and intimately you belong to the world around you. Carl Sagan, for example, writes: “Some part of our being knows this is where we came from…for the cosmos is also within us. We are made of star dust. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Or, to give one final example, Oliver Sacks, who, recalling time spent in the rainforest, wrote “being here is not just an aesthetic experience, but one steeped with mystery, with awe…Standing in the jungle, I feel part of a larger, calmer identity; I feel a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.”
Science also provides a healthy perspective. The sense of emptiness and futility that people sometimes experience during a lonely old age is only intensified by too much time indoors, alone and focussed on oneself. Anything that takes you out of yourself, therefore, should be embraced. Astronomy, for example, will take you away from the here, giving you a much needed sense of your own insignificance. Geology and evolutionary biology, on the other hand, will take you away from the now. Naturally, the ego resists this. But embrace how brief and insignificant your life really is and you may even catch yourself laughing at the absurdity of it all.
For those who are more open to mainstream religion, returning to a childhood faith may bring comfort. If you feel you have outgrown this, however, or that you cannot accept what seems to you a false consolation, why not explore something less conventional? The great English novelist and scholar Aldous Huxley famously wrote of a “perennial philosophy,” by which he meant a set of experiences described again and again throughout history – even by those inhabiting cultures completely alien to one another. Indeed, Huxley actually wrote a book titled The Perennial Philosophy, in which he collected together such descriptions. Eckhart Tolle’s hugely popular The Power of Now offers a more modern and accessible account of this core spiritual tradition.
Then of course there are such practices as meditation and yoga. Like the vastness of nature or the wonders of science, these practices will break down your lonely, frightened ego and, if done correctly, may even bring a joyful transcendence. Mindfulness is perhaps the best known of the modern techniques, but there are plenty of others to explore. And you can even try combining these sorts of spiritual exercises with actual physical exercise, as in T’ai Chi, for example.
The upside to being old and alone is the free time it gives you. Unlike those struggling to maintain a relationship or raise children, you have the time and space to explore these suggestions. After all, it doesn’t cost much to take a bus to the countryside or the coast. Neither does it cost a great deal to eat healthily, read books, visit art galleries, or take up meditation. But you must make the effort. Routine and discipline are key. And so is a healthy perspective, purged of fear and self-pity.