Psychologist and palliative care expert Marie de Hennezel believes we can learn how to age gracefully.
In her controversial book 'The Warmth of the Heart Prevents the Body from Rusting', she proposes ways in which we can all help ourselves to come to terms with the ageing process. Nick Smurthwaite caught up with her to chat through her ideas on ageing.
Subtitled 'Ageing without growing old,' Marie’s book carries the central message that even when our bodies start to fall apart, in our hearts and our spirits we can still remain active and youthful.
Her advice includes:
- Being alert to new experiences
- Retaining the capacity for joy and wonder
- Being receptive to new people and ideas
- Not expecting too much of others
- Having a positive attitude in order to avoid feeling excluded
'Medicine and science will help us,' she writes, 'but the strength of our vitality and our joie de vivre as we age will depend upon how we have worked at growing old.'
What do you mean by 'working' at being old?
Marie: There is a degree of detachment and alertness that is demanded of us at this stage in our lives. We must let go of the past, become reconciled with ourselves, and accept that we will be diminished in one respect, in order to grow in another.
There is no other way of growing old well than to move towards this youthfulness of heart.
You talk about the importance of having a positive attitude, and of using charm to deal with people.
Marie: It’s not really a question of charm. If you have a positive outlook about the future, that is the most important thing, I believe. It is very easy to complain and find the glass half empty. You have to be aware this is not a good attitude with which to go into old age.
You have to learn to see the positive side of things.
Do you really think we can be formally taught to deal better with old age?
Marie: Yes I do. In France some of our political leaders are very interested in promoting popular education in ageing well. It would not surprise me to see training courses or seminars aimed at helping senior citizens to age well psychologically and spiritually.
In our 60s, we can certainly learn to challenge our own negative thoughts.
You write openly and honestly about sex, death and dementia in later life, all of them sensitive subjects. Which do you think carries the biggest taboo in the public consciousness?
Marie: Probably sex. When the book was first published in France and I was doing interviews to promote it, not a single journalist asked me about the chapter on sex.
I think attitudes are changing a little. There was an article about Jane Fonda in Paris Match recently in which she said she was still making love at 74. In the same week there was an article in another newspaper by an older woman saying the older she was the more pleasure she had from sex.
Sex when you are older is more about the quality of the relationship, about tenderness and trust, and less about your self image. Tenderness replaces the desire to seduce or be seduced.
Did writing the book help you come to terms with your own ageing?
Marie: Certainly, yes. I’ve talked about it a lot with my children. I’ve told them I don’t have a problem with going into a retirement home.
We have a law in France that allows doctors to stop all treatment, but not to administer death. If I got to the stage where I could not recognise my children any more, I would not want the doctors to keep me alive by feeding me. I believe people should respect the fact that you want to let go.
Can we do anything to prevent the onset of dementia?
Marie: I personally believe the fear of death, and the fear of getting very old, has something to do with the onset of dementia. If you are isolated you have twice the risk of getting dementia, so it is vital to keep in touch with other people.
Having projects and being creative is very important, and we must try not to fear the prospect of death. I’ve met so many spirited people over 90 with excellent memories, and they have all been very accepting of death.
How do you see your own future?
Marie: In five years’ time, when I am 70, my intention is to try to create some kind of old peoples’ commune, with my closest friends. There is one in Belgium, which I write about in the book, and another in Montreuil in France, but they say they will not look after anyone who develops dementia.
I think we need to develop structures where people know they will be kept right to the end, no matter what happens. It is not enough to share meals and play cards together. You need to maintain that intimate spiritual link with each other to the end.
- The Warmth of the Heart Prevents the Body From Rusting is published by Pan
- Seize the Day: How the Dying Teach Us to Live, also by Marie de Hennezel, is published by Macmillan