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Mike Berger, 85, shares his thoughts and reflections on later life, and the advantages of having a healthy, thriving and active population of old people


senior man reading on park bench

I’m 85. A few years back I read an article by a medical colleague who said when he reached 75 he would regard that as the completion of a full life. While he was not promising suicide he intimated that he would do nothing thereafter to prolong his life. It seemed to me at the time that was easier to write that than to carry it out.

If you are blessed with tolerable good health I have found that you don’t become less attached to life as you near its end. Bertrand Russell dispensed the following advice to the aged:

Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.”

Dylan Thomas saw things differently,

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Dylan was 39 when he died, Bertrand 97. He was a philosopher and pacifist while Thomas was a poet and alcoholic. It seems I’m more like Russell. Is that a good thing? I don’t know.

But it hasn’t been Russell all the way for me or my wife who is only a year younger. Our lives since the age of 75 years have been full of incident and challenge, full of pain and joy, and even, occasionally, rage. I have built a cottage and sold a house. We have moved  residence 3 times over that period. Our daughter and her family left Johannesburg and joined us in Cape Town and we have witnessed and participated in the transformation of our grandchildren into adolescents. Owing to the miracles of modern medicine I recovered from a very serious leg injury that threatened to immobilise me and my wife has recovered from multiple neuro-microvascular insults to lead an essentially normal existence. We have lost many good friends to age and illness and made some wonderful new ones. We are still fully alive.

It’s time for an evaluation and I write now from a very personal perspective. Like life itself, old age differs according to the individual and circumstance. I’ve always had a secure roof over my head and have never gone to bed hungry because I could not afford food. I’m not in constant danger of violence and abuse from family, neighbours or criminals and have not been left to rot quietly in a dark room. I’ve had access to good medical care and have had the education which enables me to make good choices. I have books and the Internet and the capacity to use these antidotes to boredom and loneliness.

For many of my fellow South Africans and many more across the world this does not apply. Old age is a time of neglect and insecurity and death is a relief.

But that does not mean that old age is a doddle in the park for anyone, even those living in fortunate circumstances. Health problems and loneliness don’t know social borders and the fear of the known and the unknown must affect all of us though to different extents. We all develop different strategies for coping with these stressors. What works for one may not work in the same way for others. But here are what I think are some universals and my way of coping with them.

Firstly, keep family and friends close. Without the support of others most of us cannot cope with the major challenges age throws our way, nevermind the cumulative drip of loneliness on our psychic well-being. You can only receive by giving where you can, and old people do have ways of repaying others by caring for grandchildren or looking after the cat while the family is away or writing or visiting a friend in need. These are the basic minimum, but in the end we will be unable to give, only to receive. One needs also to prepare for that.

It seems obvious to me that active engagement with life is an absolute essential for both duration and quality. At the minimum it requires daily physical exercise of some sort appropriate to circumstances. It becomes easier and easier to neglect this and demands an active effort of will to maintain. I have managed to do this fairly successfully but have another trick which will prove even less popular: a cold shower every morning irrespective of the weather or personal inclination.

I started doing that almost ten years ago inspired by a book, believe it or not, on the training of Navy seals in the USA. I took it on as  challenge but then found unexpected benefits. Of course, I start with a normal warm shower and soap etc then close my mind, switch off the hot tap and turn the cold to top volume (which is set lowish to conserve water).

I stand dead still, hyperventilating somewhat for the first 15 seconds or so as the cold stream runs over my head and neck. And then I take a leisurely cold shower for at least a minute or 2 in which every part of my body is exposed. It steadily gets easier after the initial shock and by the end of the session it has worked its magic. There are two obvious immediate effects. Firstly, any negative mood is utterly dispersed by the shock and that lasts at least a couple of hours. At the same time there is a distinct sense of physical invigoration which lasts a similar time.

Well besides these temporary joys plus the pleasures of SM, high virtue and bragging rights, is there any objective scientific evidence of mental or physical benefits? I Googled “cold shock health benefits” and was rewarded with 39 million hits. Here is a rather soft-edged pop review which I can endorse for those contemplating such drastic measures – So yes, it’s good for you if your heart doesn’t stop beating!

What’s next? Besides the loss of physical capacities old age is an immense challenge to mental and emotional health. I’ve watched my friends cope with these challenges, often under extremely demanding circumstances, generally with great courage and innovation. They are an inspiration to me and are a testament to the fortitude of the human spirit. We all have our own ways.

I’m lucky to belong to two ‘discussion groups’ which are very different to one another but both involve intellectual engagement and personal interaction. I was a voracious reader when young and still am. Actually ‘voracious’ is an understatement; insatiable is more like it. That urge is still there but I’m much slower. I cover a lot of ground – far too much for comfort or depth. But it’s given me a very wide perspective that allows me to connect dots which maybe others miss.

This deluge of information and controversy is not an unmixed blessing. I’m part of the world and the view can be deeply depressing, even frightening. It reminds me of Charles Dickens’ brilliant opening lines to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

There is simply no doubt that if we look at the past, life has improved immensely for large numbers of people; but certainly not for all. Inevitably we have become softer and our expectations exceed possibilities. Thus we ensure that we will always have something to worry and agitate about. My way of avoiding cognitive dissonance is by writing. It’s better than denialism or wilful ignorance but it can be painful. Some problems can’t be solved and not all moral issues either. But the compulsive need to understand more about the complex, intricate and disturbing world we inhabit cannot be denied

Others take up painting, music, hiking, travel or some other activity which bring reward and challenge. Besides all this, personal correspondence with friends satisfies a need for stimulation and companionship. I have lectured at U3A until fairly recently and still maintain a personal blog and write for Politicsweb, a South African political website, though with steadily diminishing enthusiasm. I regularly meet with a few friends for coffee and company which means a lot to me.

Scott Fitzgerald, the 20th century American novelist, wrote “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me“. That’s true also of old people to some extent. They are aware of mortality in a way that the young do not.  Their lives lie mainly in the past and can be sources of regret or  pain. They look and act different, but they still feel as acutely as the young.

This brings me to the last issue for this post: why keep old people around at all? It is a question increasingly being asked as the world’s population ages, especially in developed countries. They become an economic drain on the fiscus, a burden on medical resources and social services and a source of anxiety and frustration to their children. Who needs them? 

Lionel Shriver tackles a few of these questions from a person-centred point of view in a recent short article which is worth reading. She makes a valid point about discussing ‘end-of-life’ issues with the family and drawing up a Living Will or, as she puts it, Advance Directives , to provides guidance to family or your carers as to how you wish to be treated when you become too ill or too dysfunctional to make your own choices.

As for society-centred issues raised by an aging population, that is too large and complex a subject to tackle here. Much has been written about it which would need more time and energy then I have to spare right now. But I will end with some random thoughts on the possible advantages of having a healthy, thriving and active population of old people:

1. They help stabilise a society from the excesses of youth

2. They provide a source of comfort and practical wisdom to the grandchildren and lessen the burden on the parents.

3. Taking care of them is a lesson in responsibility,  empathy and respect for the rest of society, which sorely needs it.

5. They can provide an example of fortitude, adaptation and resilience in the face of loss and pain (and occasionally the opposite).

6. They help retain the centrality of family and tradition.

7. They can be fun if you give them a chance and treat them as human.

8. What the hell? They brought you up and set you on your way. You have favours to repay.



Article by Mike Berger

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