Lately, I’ve been very preoccupied with old age. Firstly, about how I might get there without falling prematurely off this mortal coil. About how I might do it without my heart limping along, my bladder packing it in, or my memory finally going completely AWOL. And, once I have the basics down pat, how I might keep doing the things that give me joy and be with the people I love, well into my old age.
I’m not sure where my preoccupation comes from. It started with the Ikarians, those rambunctious Greek islanders who seem to party their way to longevity. If anyone knows how to do ageing well, they do. But they’re not the only ones. There are five such long-lived peoples around the world, dubbed the Blue Zones communities. They don’t mean to live a long time – they just do. The things they do that help them keep well are surprisingly simple. Best of all, there’s not a single miracle pill or fancy piece of gym equipment in sight.
Perhaps my interest in ageing well might do with the fact that I have now reached middle age. And with it, the knowledge that half my life is already behind me – and I mean pretty much exactly half my life. According to a Blue Zones longevity test, I could live to 97 years old. The thought is both exhilarating and terrifying.
However long I live, I want to keep being happy and healthy most days. And so, I find myself harassing old people. On trains, at parties, even at seminars. And I mean not just any old people, but about-to-crack-a-century old people. And I ask outright, ‘What’s the secret to a long and happy life?’
The first time I asked the question, I was on a train heading home. I sat next to an an impeccably dressed older man wearing a scarlet silk tie. In his hand, he held a brochure about The Ghan. I had a choice. I could surf the internet on my phone, or start a conversation. I started a conversation.
‘Are you thinking of taking a trip?’
‘Yes, I think my wife might like it.’
We talked about all the trips he had made in his life through his work, and about the ones he would like to take with his wife. Now that he had more time, he wanted to make the most of it.
On his lap rested a thick tome. He said he was going to teach himself Latin from scratch. When my mobile rang (‘Mum, can you please pick up something yummy to eat?’), he confessed afterwards that he didn’t own a mobile phone. His wife badgered him to get one, but he wouldn’t give in. Whatever happened to him while he was out, happened. So be it. The secret to a long and happy life? Keep learning, walk every day and enjoy each moment. He got off the train and trotted off at a brisk pace.
Soon after, I had a long chat with a 91-year-old man at a party. He still mowed his own lawn and kept his mind active by regularly visiting the ‘elderly’ in a Jesuit nursing home. There he had existential conversations about the meaning of life. The secret to a long and happy life? Keep your mind and body active, be social, and make sure to marry a good woman. He took his wife by the arm and they climbed down the steps of my friend’s house, steady as you please.
Today I met a 95-year-old woman at a writer’s event. And so, I reeled out the question again, even before we had been introduced.
She didn’t hesitate before answering.
‘A good posture,’ she said. She gave me a piercing look, as if to say, ‘are you listening to me?’ I was listening, and held my shoulders back as far as they would go. She was standing ramrod straight.
‘Have fun. Lots of it. I ate, drank, smoked, had sex. Have lots of sex if you can get it...’
Her eyes twinkled.
‘And be sure to let go of anger. Don’t waste time being angry. Sometimes it’s hard. You can’t help it. But anger isn’t worth it.’
With that, she went off to get herself a second cup of coffee and, no doubt, to impart more wise words to someone else.
I stood taller still. If I’m going to live to 97, I need to be ready.
Image by George Mifsud.