Josna Rege

216. The Third Age

In 1960s, 2010s, Childhood, Education, health, Inter/Transnational, people, Stories on June 28, 2013 at 4:22 pm

As primary-school children in the early 1960s we often had to memorize and recite poetry (which was fun if you liked it but torture if you didn’t). All the world’s a stage, the famous set piece delivered by the gloomy Jaques in Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It, was one we were all expected to learn. As schoolchildren, we were only in the second of Shakespeare’s seven ages of man (sic), which arced up from infancy and back down to second childhood: Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Because I was a scrawny little thing and my tights were always sagging at the knees, the teacher dubbed me the “lean and slipper’d pantaloon” in the sixth act of the human drama, whose “youthful hose” are now “a world too wide for his shrunk shank.” I didn’t mind being the butt of the joke: I liked attention. I was too much in love with life to be aware of Jaques’ cynicism. And I didn’t feel that I was acting a part; I was simply me, inhabiting my body with ease.

Fifty years later, I’m fast approaching what would have been Shakespeare’s sixth age, but which, in this era of increased life expectancy, has been renamed the Third Age. Mum was ahead of her time when, in her sixties, she joined a Third Age group. In this new formulation, the first age is, broadly, youth, the second, middle age, and the third, retirement or near-retirement age (or what would have been retirement age when people could afford to retire). The idea of the Third Age is that, nowadays, retirees aren’t just looking forward to a rocking chair on the front porch, but are planning for an active, creative, stage of life in which, rather than being put out to pasture, they continue to contribute their considerable talents and experience to society. Organizations around the world, such as the Third Age Trust and University of the Third Age (U3A) in Britain, which has hundreds of member groups, promote lifelong learning. With even the youngest members of the Baby-Boomer generation, born from 1946 to 1965, entering their fifties, all sorts of new initiatives are seeking to redefine that time of life once known euphemistically as “the golden years.” Every day, it seems, I hear phrases like 70 is the new 50 and Old age is a state of mind.

But the dynamic Baby Boomers can also be a death-denying generation. Not all of us will live into our nineties, and certainly not with all our cognitive faculties intact. Despite the prevalence of open-heart surgery, knee- and hip-replacements, and fitness training for the aging body and mind, still-incurable diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s will claim many of us well before we expected to retire. As we prepare to live longer, more productive lives, we must also prepare to die.

On the eve of my 59th birthday, an old friend died, much too soon. He died with his loved ones around him, helping him through yet another age, the last stage of his embodied life. Shakespeare’s cynical Jaques was wrong: even as he lost physical control, he was never “sans everything,” entering “mere oblivion.” His ever-youthful spirit and his loving, lifelong commitment to others, especially to young people, gathered people around him and returned love to him throughout his final vigil and beyond.

Remembering Bob with love, and hoping for a Third Age, however long or short it may be, blessed by friends and family of all ages.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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  1. I’m one of the earliest baby boomers, being born in 1946. But enough of that. My husband and I went to a family hour today for an 88 year old neighbor of ours who died last week. He was a very vibrant man and was full of jokes and stories and memories and interested in life. In the last several years his body had begun to fail him. He was approaching a time when he and his children were thinking about what help he was going to need and how to approach the time, soon coming, when he and his wife would no longer be able to live on their own. It was, perhaps, a blessing when he died quickly Monday of an abdominal aneurysm. But it was still hard to have him gone. Even more so, of course, for his family.

    I also think about my three aunts in their 90s who are suffering various ailments, memory losses, physical losses. I have no illusions I’m going to live forever, or even be in the same state I’m in now in 10 or 20 years. I’m hoping for a 3rd age – which I’m in right now – like your friends and my friends too.

    • Thank you for sharing own recent loss, reminding me that we are all in this together. Here’s to a richly rewarding Third Age for us all and here’s to the advice, comfort, and help we can offer to each other, family, friends, and neighbors alike!

  2. This is what I like about your posts Josna: they are so grounded in truth and reality. The sugar coatings are elsewhere. E

    • Thank you, E. I can’t help it in this case: forced to think about mortality. But no doubt, given the personal subject matter and public status of this blog, I’m still guilty of sugar-coating pieces on other subjects. Perhaps I need to try fiction–which might help me get out of myself more Do you find that it does so in your case?

      • Fiction lifts the load of my reality Josna. The research & the thinking behind the making of it, fill my head with literally constructive thoughts. It offers respite & another place to be. E

        • How beautifully put, E. Yes, I feel very much the same when I write my TMA stories, which provide similar respite and “constructive engagement” with myself. But although the title Tell Me Another points to the blurriness of the dividing line between fiction and non-fiction, I would imagine that creating different characters as you do in Undercover Mole and inhabiting their heads could be a liberating experience.

        • U need to feel impelled in order to attempt it I think. Ralph is the hardest character to inhabit I think; he is so different to me. Perhaps there is some powerful, unresolved, drama in your own life that you could write a ‘fiction’ about? U r on the edge of giving it a go I think? E

        • You’re right, E, I am. Hovering uncertainly on the edge. Your characters and letters give me all sorts of ideas. I see your latest post is a Ralph writing in a new mode himself! Will respond soon.

  3. Do you believe there’s something more than oblivion, Josna? Great post.

    • That is a big question, Don, to which I don’t know the answer. I do know, from my friend’s description of her recent journey as she and her daughters kept vigil and accompanied their dear partner and father as he prepared for death, that it didn’t feel like a journey to oblivion. In my present, very limited state of understanding I prefer to think of it as a letting-go of one’s individual self to embrace the universe without fear.

      • I like that, especially the last part of your words. It appropriates the mystery without the trite platitudes and nonsense we so often hear.

  4. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. My 20-year-old niece just lost a friend yesterday. I gather that there was an organized search for him after he’d been missing a few days. It’s shaken her. It’s been an odd experience for me to communicate support to her via Facebook through the ordeal.

    In response to Don’s question: Have you ever heard Iris Dement’s song, “Let the Mystery Be”? Wonderful, wonderful song, humorous words but heartfelt, not snarky. She grew up in a fundamentalist family, whom she loves a lot even as she has rejected the religion. Well worth the listen, if you can find it.

    • Dear Sarah, I guess we’re using new media to offer comfort to each other in new ways. I’m sure it meant a lot to your niece that you were able to give her your auntly support in that way.
      I had stumbled upon that song a while ago, Sarah, even posted a link to it on my FB page, but had forgotten all about it. I will look for it listen to the words again in this context. I like what I’ve heard of Iris Dement–mostly in her duets with John Prine and through her performance in a movie about a (real) woman, an ethnographer who collected songs in the Appalachians. Yes, belief can be presumptious, especially if it is rigid and exclusive. We may intuit it, and seek guidance from the prp\ophets and the saints, but how can we know the ineffable?

  5. I should have known that it’s on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlaoR5m4L80

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