Tuesday, September 11, 2007

As I was pondering what to write this month, my Sunday paper had a headline, 'Old age isn’t for sissies.' It was a columnist writing about the need to plan ahead even when we seem to believe that old age is never going to happen to us.

As I was pondering what to write this month, my Sunday paper had a headline, 'Old age isn’t for sissies.' It was a columnist writing about the need to plan ahead even when we seem to believe that old age is never going to happen to us.

American readers will know my age if I say that exactly 25 years ago I joined, rather unexpectedly for a young Englishman, the American Association of Retired People (membership starts at 50). So anyone who doesn’t want to read the words of an old man can switch off now.

I have in my possession a letter sent in 1800 from York, now Toronto, back to Ireland by William Willcocks, my great, great, great, great uncle. He writes, 'My dear cousin, you and I are old, and must expect disease and death shortly, therefore we ought to bear the one with patient resignation and fervently pray the Almighty to prepare us for the other.' Cousin William would have been familiar with 2 Corinthians 5:2, 'Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling.'

He was eleven years younger than I am now when he wrote it and his words say a little bit about life expectancy and perhaps also about the fear of God, that existed more than two hundred years ago. They also wrote better letters than we do in the age of email and Ipod.

I had occasion six years ago to send for my surgeon’s notes from America. Those are the notes the surgeon never expects the patient to read. They described me as 'a genial old gentleman'. Six years ago! I didn’t mind the 'genial' but I didn’t much care for the 'old gentleman' bit. It used to be said that you’re getting old when the policemen look younger than you are. Nowadays I find it is the presidents and prime ministers who look as if they are just out of college. It gives me pause for thought when I discover that President Roosevelt was more than ten years younger than I am when he died and it is even more startling when I find women start giving up their seats for me in the bus.

As I discovered at a party this week all of us of our age wonder whether the fact that we can’t remember this and that name is an indication of the onset of alzheimers and we hope that increasingly a cure may be found. Several friends of mine are afflicted by it including a member of my school rugby team who played in the England team. It would help if some of us senior citizens had fewer senior moments and didn’t knock glasses over so easily or talk quite so much about what things were like when we were young.

There are advantages in age, of course. Here in Britain we have to have expensive television licenses and at 75 you get them free. I even had my photo in the national tennis magazine together with a seven-year-old because we were both playing in the same tournament. When I speak to audiences of my age about the evacuation of British children to America in World War II, the subject of my book See You After the Duration, I don’t have to answer the question, 'The duration of what?' And I like the perspective of Leviticus: 'Show respect for old people and honor them. Fear me; I am the Lord.'

Actually, there doesn’t seem to be much in the Bible about senior citizens. Perhaps there was less old age around. Though Sarah and Methusaleh would work against that theory. We are sometimes put on pedestals. Job is reassuring, 'Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days' and I can confirm the truth of at least the first half of the verse in Proverbs 17:6, 'Children’s children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children.' And one can always say fervently Psalm 71, 'Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent' and Psalm 90, 'Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.'

Looking back I can be grateful that while still a teenager I was taught that wisdom is available from God if we take the time to seek it. I developed then the practice of rising early and spending time in quiet, seeking guidance, alert to correction and direction. I did it at first with enthusiasm and out of a sense of duty. I do it even now, still with enthusiasm and perhaps less discipline, but also because I need that perspective to start the day and can feel lost without it.

I had a friend who was worried about memory loss and decided to attend a healing service at her church. The only trouble, she told me, was that when she got there she couldn’t remember why she had come.

So my main message is, try and keep a sense of humor - even if at least temporarily you can’t recall your minister’s name! My apologies to Richard.