This essay was written by Jimmie Holland, M.D. (84) and Mindy Greenstein, Ph.D. (holding on to her forties for a few more weeks):
Mr. S, a writer in his nineties, was asked to appear in court. His sons believed he was no longer competent to handle his estate. Mr. S spoke in his own defense. He agreed that he might have neglected his work recently because he had been finishing a play. After he read his play to the court, the case was quickly dismissed.
Does this sound like a story you might have read about in the newspaper recently? It so happens that Mr. S was Sophocles, and the play was Oedipus in Colonus, according to Cicero in his Essay on Old Age, written in 44 BC. Cicero’s essay is written as a dialogue between Cato the Elder, a venerable old man of eighty four, and his young friend, Scipio, who asks if Cato would describe older age, since Scipio and his friends are “travelers who mean to take the same long journey.” Their dialogue is a direct parallel of a dialogue between the two of us— a psychiatrist in her 80’s and a psychologist barely holding on to her forties. And from the look of things, it’s clear that gerontophobia—the fear of the elderly and of growing older—has been around for thousands of years. As have been ways of combating it.
Cicero gives a lively account of aging and finds it less odious than expected, especially if you have lived a good life thus far. Sophocles isn’t the only one whose mental functioning is intact. Cicero notices that elders don’t usually forget the most important things, like where they buried their money. Two millennia ago, burying your money underground was the only way to keep it safe–so you’d best remember the spot where you buried it!
The now popular concept of mental exercises is not new, either. Cicero’s Cato practices the advice of the Pythagorean philosophers, trying to remember every night all that had transpired during the day. As to old dogs and new tricks, Cato learned Greek in his eighties, while Socrates learned to play the lyre in old age as well.
Why is Cicero’s essay important today? Similar to Cicero’s Cato, I (JH) am eighty-four myself and have been engaged in helping older people cope with aging and illness for many years. We repeatedly lament how elders are often viewed by society. It is not a pretty picture, including prejudice, annoyance, and sometimes even ridicule. One bright 92 year old woman described how humiliating it felt when her doctors repeatedly looked right past her, addressing all questions to her aide instead. Though these attitudes have a modern name—“ageism”—Cicero shows that questions about the function and role of elders have a long history.
In fact, his suggestions for coping two thousand years ago could easily appear in a 2012 self-help book. And the qualities that Cicero calls the “virtues” that help us through all stages of life— courage, humanity, integrity, kindness— could have come straight from a textbook in Positive Psychology.
Cicero tackles four common myths about aging:
1) Old age “incapacitates a man from acting in the affairs of the world.”
For Cicero, any dip in physical vigor is more than compensated for by the prudence and wisdom that elders bring to the table. More than 2,000 years later, a 2010 University of Michigan study found elders outperformed younger adults in understanding and solving complex social situations across multiple measures. This is why Cicero believed elders should feel obligated to teach the younger generation the lessons they’d learned over decades.
2) “Old age produces great infirmities of the body.”
Here, Cicero finds some justification. His advice for maintaining health:
Modern science similarly highlights the importance of exercising both mind and body. A new study by the Mayo clinic even suggests that exercise and computer use together help to reduce memory loss more than either activity alone.
3) Old age “disqualifies him from the enjoyment of the sensual gratifications.”
Cicero finds eating and drinking still a sensual pleasure, and he enjoys meals with friends even more. As to sex, he finds less pleasure and less inclination than when he was younger. But he thinks this is adaptive. As he writes elsewhere, it is “sensual and intemperate youth [that] hands over a worn-out body to old age” in the first place. Modern behavioral science has been a little slow to study whether Cicero is right about that. The reportedly growing problem of sexually transmitted diseases in nursing homes might suggest the issue is more complicated.
4) Old age “brings him within the immediate verge of death.”
Cicero notes that the young assume elders fear death because of its proximity in the “winter of our days”. Yet he finds they are far from preoccupied with death. Rather, they focus on living as fully as possible, accepting that nature has “appointed to the days of man, as to all things else, their proper limits.” Modern researchers have found a similarly liberating attitude.
Just like Scipio, the young fear aging, and associate it with death and loss of vitality. But Cicero reminds us that there are many ways to remain vital. Our meetings with elders cover the same topics, and we discuss them with the same frankness and humor and acceptance, as did Cicero before us.
Maintaining that sense of vitality is a two way street. Younger adults may be surprised by the power and pleasure of conversations with elders. Like Cicero’s Cato and Scipio, we too need to expand the intergenerational dialogue. In fact, this essay directly came about as a result of intergenerational dialogue: a grandmother (JH) and her/granddaughter starting a reading club to explore the classics together. In addition, the two of us represent the elder (JH) and middle (MG) ages, and have thoroughly enjoyed our ongoing dialogue about how our generations can work together through the inevitable challenges that aging poses for us all.
Whether in 44 BC or 2012, we elders, mid-lifers, and young adults all have in common the same desire—to enjoy our lives and our families. Accomplishing that requires the same mutual respect and understanding it did many years ago. When it comes to aging, like many other things, the more we think things change, the more they stay the same.
Adapted from Mindy Greenstein's (age 51) and Jimmie Holland's (age 86) new book about the positive aspects of aging from midlife through older age: Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging, published by Oxford University Press, selected by The Wall Street Journal as one of the year's best books on making the most of older age..
Click here for my (MG) book (one of O: The Oprah Magazine's 10 Titles to Pick Up in May; with Foreword by New York Times columnist David Brooks): The House on Crash Corner and Other Unavoidable Calamities—about the sad, hilarious and meaningful ways we deal with the crises in our lives.