I’m going to be fifty years old soon. To say I’m not looking forward to it is putting it mildly, so when I saw The warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body From Rusting by Marie de Hennezel on the shelves at Tesco, I was immediately drawn to it.
Ms. Hennezel is a clinical psychologist who in this book, according the the blurb, ‘provides the key to a rich, rewarding and fruitful old age.’
The author begins with the observation that instead of growing old well we are trying to hold on to our youth using fashion, cosmetics and surgery to do so. Growing old is seen as an inevitable decline into decrepitude, uselessness and loneliness. Ms Hennezel argues that our old age need not be a cold, bleak prospect, that instead our final years can – and should – be as fulfilled and rewarding as our youth. She quotes examples from other cultures where the old are venerated and still seen as useful and cherished members of the community. I do not doubt this, but her subsequent arguments hold very little water for me.
One of the author’s premises is that we should succumb to the helplessness of age and take joy from being looked after. She cites a few experimental institutions where those employed to care for the elderly do so with great respect and tenderness, claiming that it takes no more time to do so. My own experiences in this are very different. I watched as my mother-in-law was pushed and pulled in a care home with little interaction attempted by the staff. Why bother? She had dementia so what difference would holding her hand and stroking her hair do? I have listened to friends tell me about how their fathers and mothers were bewildered and dehydrated when they visited, wearing clothes splattered with yesterday’s food. This is not the old age envisaged by Ms Hennezel.
We should learn to love our bodies as they age, she claims. Our wrinkles and stretch marks and spurious hair growth should be embraced and acceptable to everyone, that sexuality in ones later years can be fulfilling and enjoyable. Yet the images we are constantly shown by the media are of the young or the old pretending to be young and viagra-fueled septuagenarians escorting young girls with dollar signs in their eyes.
With all the advances in medicine to aid us, we are able to be active well into our later years, to enjoy the companionship of friends, gentle excercise and time with our families. Ms. Hennezel also gives the example of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who is a proponent of meditative walking. This involves being aware of the space our bodies take up, to prolong contact with our feet on the ground as if they were rooted there, an antenna pulling us upwards and walking in time with our breath.
In many ways, I cannot argue with most of what Ms Hannezel says. I meditate myself and find great peace and stress relief in it. I have, more or less, accepted the invisibility of age; where I once would turn heads as I walked by I am no longer noticed. I don’t like it, but I accept it. And in the UK we are lucky to still have the NHS to help with our healthcare.
I think that if you are middle-class, have had a good education and a strong family life, access to private medical care, enough money to eat well and fund leisure activities and live in a relatively crime-free area, old age could be just as the author predicts. But if you have had a life where through lack of education and social situation you have had a poor diet and a broken family, the reality would be very, very different. You won’t find many old women in Easterhouse walking meditatively for fear of being mugged or because they have been on the waiting list for a replacement hip for eighteen months.
It’s not that she is wrong, it’s just that Ms Hennezel argues from a very naive and privileged viewpoint of which the majority of people have no experience. I do find it hard to believe that such an experienced and educated woman can have such narrow and blinkered viewpoint.
I have come away from the book angry. Personally angry that I wasted such a long time on a book from which I hoped so much, but also angry that there is still such a dichotomy between the rich and poor and that so many lucky and blessed people can be so unaware of and uncaring about such a large chunk of the population.
Has this book helped me embrace my aging? In a way, yes. It has made me decide to say, bugger it: I might be getting older, wrinklier and forgetful, but I’d rather just get on with life and the cards dealt to me than live a rarified life in the ivory towers inhabited by Ms. Hennezel where I am so impervious to the realities of so many.
Now excuse me. I’m off to buy a purple hat and join Saga.