I didn’t think much about old age until about ten years ago when my father had to enter assisted living. Up to that point, old age was a distant land, maybe because I had known none of my grandparents. When my father died in 2018, I lost him as well as my treasured role as his caregiver, but also a certain insulation. Now that he is gone, I can no longer play the anthropologist, observing the tribe of old people. Increasingly I’m starting to think of myself as one of the specimens.
One of the worries the young have about getting old is that we will become other people as we age. I can easily say, in the third person, that my father never became someone else, even though his vascular dementia cost him a lot of useful abilities. He retained his characteristic charm and humour, his gratitude for people, and his love of his profession as a physicist.
In the first person, it’s more worrisome. In a famous article, Bernard Williams argued that immortality wouldn’t do us any good, because eventually we would either get excruciatingly bored or develop new interests that essentially make us other people. Williams was talking about people with unheard of ages, like 800, but, while standing in the canning aisle at Wal-Mart recently, I got to thinking that it’s strange how I’ve developed a passion for watching Westerns and canning pickles. Am I still me?
Philosophers will tell you that you can think your way out of any badness associated with old age. Some, like Seneca, even said that the last years are our best ones – drawing a comparison with the way the final fruits of the harvest are the sweetest. But come on! Take hearing, for example. Losing it is just bad, and I don’t believe any amount of rethinking will change that. Hearing loss isn’t just loss, it’s often also a gain – of phantom noise. Rethinking helps up to a point – if you’re disciplined and pay it no attention, it seems to go away. But recently waking at a campsite in empty west Texas, I should have been able to enjoy the total silence. If you have tinnitus, you can’t do that.
The positive psychologists tell us the happiness curve over our lifetimes is shaped like a smile. In other words, from the midpoint of life onward it’s up and up and up, until very advanced old age, hearing loss – and all the other vicissitudes – notwithstanding. How can that be, if our problems accumulate, year after year? It’s a hard question. However welcome or unwelcome, old age is definitely interesting.