Here Marie de Hennezel, a French psychologist and palliative care expert, explores ageing in the Western world.

Her thesis is perhaps summarised in these words – ‘Between letting go of our youth and accepting our inevitable death, there is a time when we may feel deeply happy and free. That time is a unique opportunity to discover aspects of ourselves that we did not know, to see, to feel, and to love in a new way.’

One of her anecdotes gives an example of this approach in practise. She meets an old man who explains that whereas he used to be able to do his favourite mountain walk in an hour it now takes three. However he explains that on this walk he now notices and appreciates more, such as the small wild flowers along the way.

Unfortunately the author sees a number of obstacles to experiencing old age in this positive way. One is ageism in the developed world – ‘People are afraid of growing old because they cannot bear the way other people will see them. Old people are made to feel that they are an ugly, useless burden on society. ’ Another obstacle is when older people either obsessively seek to prolong their youth or, alternatively, isolate themselves through what she describes as self centred whining, complaining and obsession with themselves.

Among the factors she sees as encouraging a healthy approach to ageing are curiosity (‘the anti-ageing drug par excellence’); optimism (‘everything suggests that the body needs signals of hope if it is to recuperate, to adapt and to remain fit’ ) arguing that many methods exist to develop positive thinking; positive relationships (‘centenarians are almost never lonely’); generosity (arguing that both giving and receiving have positive effects); meditation, deep relaxation and periods of silence; and a willingness to let go of our past, become reconciled with ourselves and accept that we will be diminishing in one respect in order to grow in another (Jung’s process of individuation).

Marie de Hennezel draws on inspiration from Okinawa, noted for the healthy longevity of its inhabitants. Indeed the title of this book is a popular song from this Japanese island. She argues that their success depends not only on a healthy diet and physical exercise (important as these are) but also on an attitude of mind. This includes the love and respect younger people have for the elderly, viewing them as a ‘treasure’, not a burden, There is also a strong community spirit, with mutual help and support, spiritual life is valued, and serenity cultivated.

This is not a traditional scientific treatise and at times the approach may seem a little alien to Anglo Saxon readers. It draws, in a very French way, not only on various studies and the author’s own research but also on her own personal life and the insights of philosophers, poets and friends. Whilst some readers have responded enthusiastically to what they perceive as an uplifting meditation on ageing (describing it, for example, as ‘magnificent’ and ‘wonderful’) another described it as the most depressing account of growing old she had ever read.

Whatever your own verdict you will probably find this an interesting catalyst to thinking about how best, as individuals and societies, we can age well.

The Warmth of the Heart prevents your Body from Rusting: Marie de Hennezel

Published 23/01/2012