Rusty Body, Warm Heart

by Nettie on March 6, 2012

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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.’

Hmm.

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.

But…

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.
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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

jackieat60 March 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm

I can understand both why you bought the book and your response to it. There is a huge difference between lifestyles, mainly brought about by financial circumstances.
I turned 60 last year and am still in shock, quite honestly, as I am no longer sure what is expected these days, in someone of 60.
However, for me, I feel there is a certain freedom to getting older, I am learning to care less about what people think of me, hecky thump my mum wears jeans and cowboy boots with a suede jacket, because she likes it and it suits her, but there are those who would boo hoo that as she is in her 80′s! My hair is bright red, I love big jewellery, I am not wearing jeans at the moment as I dont suit them as I am too heavy right now, but when I lose weight I will wear them again. I feel I can suit me.

I am learning to accept the changes age brings, though I will never like them, and I will continue to wear makeup, do the hair, wear jewellery etc, still intend getting my tattoo before my next birthday!!

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nettiewriter March 6, 2012 at 1:04 pm

You are quite right: we should suit ourselves as to what we wear and how we style our hair – it matters not a jot what age you are.
It was the total lack of understanding how the poor would manage to have the old age she suggests that angered me.
Cheers, Jackie xxx

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Abi Burlingham March 6, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Aw Nettie, I know the feeling. I hit 47 today… it sounds so old – it’s the wrong side of forty!!! I am getting used to the idea though, and it’s better than the only realistic alternative! I can understand how the book hacked you off a bit – I think it would have me too. Hope you find a nice hat and wear it with panaz! x

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nettiewriter March 6, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Happy Birthday!
Nxxx

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MrsT March 6, 2012 at 3:56 pm

When I was on the run up to being 40 (I’m 43 now) I got pangs about ageing and went through the fog of Is-This-It that I know a lot of people struggle with at various stages to varying degrees but I woke up on my actual birthday feeling thoroughly blessed… I simply can’t believe how lucky I am!!!

I think I feel liberated in getting older and I quite enjoy the invisibility it affords me. I do recognise how big a part education and financial security play though and I can completely understand your frustrations in the book you read.

It’s big complicated ‘stuff’, I’m sure I won’t live to see those entrenched inequalities eradicated. I try to be kind where I can and appreciate what I’ve got everyday.

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nettiewriter March 6, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Totally agree with you. I also try to treat people with kindness where I can and I do appreciate my blessings. But I am aware I am very, very lucky and that many don’t have what I do. Like you, I doubt I’ll see any significant changes in my lifetime. But maybe if we all try to change one thing, we might see a difference in our children’s time.
Thanks for reading andcommenting.
Nxxx

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Ange Barton March 6, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Hello Nettie,

So lovely to read your thoughts again. I hope your mum is well.

I have beaten you to the big five-o. I wear biker boots over my jeans, I still turn heads (from a distance!!) and I got my first tattoo last year. I wear make-up because it makes me look younger and I use moisturiser and get regular highlights in my hair for the same reason. Why shouldn’t we? Is 50 old these days? It’s certainly middle-aged, but old? Definitely not!

I think a person’s outlook makes them appear old or not. As long as we don’t break the golden rules of wearing TOO much make-up or dressing up like a teenager, we can mix and match young fashion. I wouldn’t ever wear cropped tops, short skirts or low-cut tops again, but a pair of chunky biker boots over a pair of jeans and a jumper make me feel as if there’s life in the old girl yet!!

Smile – you look fabulous Nettie.

Love Ange xxx

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nettiewriter March 6, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Aw – bless you Ange! I’d never have guessed your age! I never looked my age til recently, but illness has taken its toll, the bugger! I have stopped dying my hair because I am bored with the tyranny of it and trying to cut down on the chemicals I put on my body. I’ll put on make up on good days, but don’t care if I don’t. People will either like me or not, regardless of my hair colour and make up – but then, I’m not out and about in the real world; I stay at home and live in my imaginary world. If I went out into the workplace every day where I had to compete with other, younger women, I’d maybe feel differently. There is no wrong or right, I think. We each should do what makes us comfortable – and I pray daily that the disadvantaged in society one day have access to the resources they need to make their choices.

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Cameron Lawton (@CameronLawton) March 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Understand why you were angry Nettie + it would involve changing the attitudes of a whole society for everyone of our age to live a full and fulfilled old age. As long as “old people” are regarded as an inconvenient burden, they won’t get the respect and support on which her suggestions are postulated.

I’ve gone grey – whey hey, no more root-fiddling. Younger women no longer see me as a threat – that’s nice, they might take the time to see if they can get on with me as a person. Sex appeal? That’s in the eyes (even if they have those paid-for wrinkles around them)

When I read your comments I thought of photos I’ve seen of working class women at the turn of the century who looked 90 but were probably younger than me now (OK 55 as you asked)

We is OK we is. Cam xxx

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nettiewriter March 6, 2012 at 5:45 pm

We most definitely is!

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Glynis Smy March 6, 2012 at 5:51 pm

The best thing that happened to me was turning 50. I found courage and a new youthful outlook on life. I embraced new ideas and lifestyle. Don’t be scared, just enjoy the freedom. Folk will forgive you as they put it down to age! LOL

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nettiewriter March 6, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Haha – at last! I really will be a mad old bat!

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