Old Age and Anthroposophy – Part I

According to a recent report in the Daily Telegraph, old age does not now begin until one is 74 years old. For the anthropopper, that means he still has a few more years of late middle age until cheeky young whippersnappers can legitimately call him old. But that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t already begun to think about what it means to be old and how to prepare for it.

The experience of others hasn’t always been encouraging. Throughout the centuries, old age has held terrors for those approaching it. Here, for example, is the French poet, Pierre de Ronsard (1524 – 1585):

Ma douce jouvence est passée

Ma première force est cassée

J’ai la dent noire et le chef blanc

Mes nerfs sont dissous et mes veines

Tant j’ai le corps froid ne sont pleines

Que d’une eau rousse au lieu de sang

 

J’ai la tête toute étourdie

De trop d’ans et de maladies

De tous côtés le soin me mord

Et soit que j’aille ou que je tarde

Toujours après moi je regarde

Si je verrai venir la mort.

 

(Trans.)

My sweet youth has passed

My former strength is broken

My teeth are black and my hair is white

My nerves have gone and the veins

In my cold body feel as though they’re full of

Thin red water rather than blood.

 

My head is hare-brained now

After too many years and illnesses.

On all sides cares come up to bite me

And, whether I go forward or hang back,

Always I look behind me

To see if death is coming.

 

Poor Ronsard was only 61 when death came to claim him. But his poem lives on and has been superbly set to music by the composer Jacques Leguerney; you can hear it sung here by the baritone Bruno Laplante.

In more recent times, the Hollywood actress Bette Davis (1908 – 1989) was quoted as saying: “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” She suffered much illness towards the end of her life and was speaking from bitter experience. The author Philip Roth put it even more strongly, in his novel Everyman: “Old age is not a battle. Old age is a massacre.”

As we age, our bodies become denser, drier, more fragile and start to lose flexibility. We become aware that that our vital functions don’t work as well as they used to do. Blood vessels, joints, the muscle and valves of the heart and even the lungs pick up substantial deposits of calcium and turn stiff. Our hair doesn’t grow as much as when we were younger, and ageing symptoms become more visible. Our strength diminishes, our mobility is reduced, we feel fatigue more rapidly. Sight and hearing begin to fail. Alongside these physical changes, our memory can become undependable and our mind may work more confusedly.

This reduction in our physical and mental powers can also involve us in further unhappy consequences. We retire from our job, and if we have not been able to build up savings or a personal pension, our income becomes so much reduced that we may find ourselves living at little more than subsistence level on a state pension. And yet worse things can happen during this period. We may lose our life-companion; our children might move away or forget us; our friends die off. We can become isolated and lonely.

And then there is a big change: it may come through a sudden medical emergency or it may be a long, slow decline, but there is an unquestionable, inescapable crisis awaiting us in the business of living. The ebbing of the life forces means that the daily chores of shopping, cooking meals, cleaning and physical hygiene become ever more strenuous until one reaches the stage where one cannot do it anymore and neglect begins to creep in. We are leaving behind what has been the normal, natural self-dependence of the main part of our adult life and entering upon the dependence on other people that basically characterises old age. One can see why Bette Davis concluded that old age was no place for sissies.

This all sounds quite grim, and can indeed be so. But what it leaves out are the soul and spiritual qualities of the human being. From an anthroposophical perspective, old age – like childhood, youth and adulthood – is a phase of life in which certain developmental processes take place. Old age and early childhood can be compared. The spiritual being of the child still only surrounds and does not yet penetrate the physical body, and because of this we feel the child is near to the spiritual world from which it recently came. This is part of the reason for the feeling of protectiveness which it draws out in us. In elderly people the spiritual forces are withdrawing from the physical body and also surround it, so that old people, too, are near to the spiritual world to which they will soon return. In both children and old people we can see a certain helplessness and clumsiness because they have not yet, or have no longer, the power in their limbs possessed by the fully incarnated adult. Yet though the bodily forces diminish in old age, there are still positive developments to discover as we prepare for excarnation.

Looking at the life forces in old age, one can see that, as they become freer from predominantly physical tasks, they can be used in the service of further development of thinking. The famous Japanese painter Hokkaido declared that everything he did before he was 73 was quite worthless. Titian painted his most powerful works when he was almost 100. Verdi composed Falstaff – his last, and one of his best operas – as he was approaching the age of 80. It seems likely that they were able to do these things because, with increasing age, the path that leads inwards progresses on and on, while what is going on in the outside world becomes less important and everyday events become less interesting. As we age, greater insights arise concerning the big questions of life and a new understanding emerges as to what is essential, and what no longer matters.

The wisdom which comes to many people with old age can also be of benefit to younger people. A good example of this is the tribute written here for the late Nick Thomas by a pupil. Such wisdom in the third and last phase of our life can be seen as the “fruit” of having lived consciously, while continuing to work on oneself and cultivating an active inner life. But a fruit also contains the seeds, which is actually what is happening to us in old age: we are developing desires and motives for a new life, with the intent to find balance for the past chapters.

Neither we as individuals nor society as a whole are very good at providing the circumstances in which these more positive aspects of old age can come to fruition. There is a kind of transitional stage, which for most people is likely to be somewhere between the ages of 75 – 85. Before this stage most people are still independent, while beyond it most are either partially or totally dependent on help. We are reluctant to prepare ourselves for this gradual or sudden loss of independence. Perhaps we are not very realistic about assessing our position, or perhaps the idea of anything less than the complete independence we have got used to during our adult life is intolerable. But gradually, (and there are of course a few exceptional cases of people who can manage on their own into their late 80s or even 90s), for most of us a mild or total dependence on others comes about. All this can be regarded as an expression of the fact that in old age the astral body (Soul) is becoming loosened from the physical body and the ego (Self) is gradually withdrawing from the earthly realm. *

As our ability to be independent fades, we look to others for help. Such help was traditionally supplied by the family, but that is becoming unusual in today’s social conditions. Usually what happens is that we go into a care home or a nursing home. The prosperity of society in the West has enabled even the poor to expect such homes to provide nutritious meals, professional health services, physical therapy, bingo and a lounge with a television on at all times. These homes have eased old age for millions of people and made proper care and safety a norm to an extent that would have been unimaginable a few generations ago. Yet, still, most of us consider modern old age homes to be frightening, desolate and undesirable places in which to spend the last phase of our lives. We need and desire something better.

According to Dr Atul Gawande, in his book Being Mortal, in which he deplores the emphasis on the medicalisation of old age, “this is the consequence of a society that faces the final phase of the human life cycle by trying not to think about it. We end up with institutions that address any number of societal goals – from freeing up hospital beds to taking burdens off families’ hands to coping with poverty among the elderly – but never the goal that matters to the people who reside in them: how to make life worth living when we’re weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves any more.”

We can and should do better than this. It should be a matter of the greatest importance that old people are supported by a community in which there lives an understanding for the aspects of soul and spirit as well as physical care. Maybe old people do not need more care-giving, but greater understanding for the role of old age and its mission. The homes in which old people live should be centres of culture, with lectures, musical evenings, creative courses and opportunities for the residents themselves to contribute their own gifts. We all need a purpose, and a sense of being needed – and there should also be opportunities for inter-generational contacts from which both young and old can benefit.

In the second part of this post, I will write about some encouraging examples of such communities, including one which is being planned for Emerson College in the UK.

 

* Rudolf Steiner’s view of the human being includes the idea that each of us has four bodies (the physical, and three non-physical “bodies”: the etheric, or life body, the astral body or Soul and a fourth one, called the ego or Self. The etheric body is essentially an energy body that contains and forms the physical. It is this etheric body which maintains the physical body’s form until death. The astral body (Soul) provides us with awareness and self-awareness, our emotions and our feelings and intentions. The ego or Self is the immortal and inalienable core of a human being, which goes with us from one incarnation to the next. There are another three bodies in potential – the spirit self, the life spirit and spirit man – which are to come to full development in later stages of human evolution.

18 Comments

Filed under Old Age, Ageing, Elderly People

18 responses to “Old Age and Anthroposophy – Part I

  1. When my mother was the age I am now and lived in an “Assisted Living” place in Florida, I was visiting her once and her current boyfriend said to me:
    “Frank, the golden years are tarnished.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am caring for my 97+ year old mother at home, which pretty much ties me down to going nowhere and has for the past several years. Finally have a little help from a neighbor/friend a couple hours/week and am paying for a outside caregiver another hour every week. I would love to see small little ‘communities’ like you speak of here (am in US – Tennessee) – that are affordable for those on extremely limited pension. Nursing homes/assisted living are outrageously expensive – upwards to $6k/month. I honestly do not know how anyone can afford that, except those that have a lot of assets, which the home then takes. And as Frank indicated in his comment, even then they are not exactly enjoyable places to be. Yes, we need to do much better for our elderly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sarah, I guess you’ve already looked into the Fellowship Community in Chestnut Ridge, NY? It’s an anthroposophically inspired intergenerational community that revolves around care of the elderly. I gather it is much less expensive than the typical nursing home. I don’t know if there are any spots available at the moment there. I worked there for something over a year (and helped with clerical stuff in their medical office for years) and it seemed to me a very home-like place. I guess that with all the co-workers and members, maybe eighty or a hundred people live there. The Fellowship is right next to a number of other anthroposophical institutions: a large Waldorf school, a eurythmy school, Sunbridge Institute, Pfeiffer Garden, a food coop, and more.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Edward – no I was not aware of this Community at all. It sounds wonderful. I will look more into it just to know about it, but likely not an option for Mom as she would not stand being uprooted to that extent at this point (just not stable enough). Perhaps several years ago… Thank you for telling me about this!

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  3. wooffles

    The old people I know at the Fellowship Community love it, because it is a real community with families and children and a farm, not one of those age-segregated retirement places. Old people’s contributions to the larger community are welcomed. They can make themselves as much a part of ongoing life as they want to; that’s so much the way it should be. You also feel how this place is steered by love and idealism and a vision of how society should be, rather than profit, another thing that distinguishes it from most retirement homes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just took a look at their website – oh my I think I’m going to go live there! I’m not totally joking either…have no kids, no siblings, only my husband and he’s older than me. At this age I probably do need to be thinking about some things for my own not-so-distant future. Am really glad this whole post/conversation came up!

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  4. There is a conference coming up concerning death and dying, sponsored by the Anthroposophical Society in America.
    https://anthroposophy.z2systems.com/np/clients/anthroposophy/event.jsp?event=86

    Jeremy’s essay makes me think of a lecture that Rudolf Steiner had wherein he speaks about how middle age has decreased over the post-atlantean epochs. From 56 years of age in the ancient Indian epoch to 33 years of age at the time of Christ. And now, in our very time, it is 27 years of age! Yet, here we are, living at a time in which we tend to live into our 70’s and 80’s. It would all be good if the quality-of-life also extended with this middle age, but it isn’t in most cases. Life becomes a suffering entity the older we get.

    Here is the synopsis of a lecture that gives one pause to consider in today’s world, wherein life-extension through technological advances seen in medical procedures and drug prescriptions, serves the purpose of increasing the quantity of years lived at the expense of the quality of those years. It begs the question: Do we really need to live beyond fundamental usefulness for ourselves and those we love?

    “The general age of mankind as a whole is receding. This means that the development of man’s soul and spirit ceases to be dependent on the physical body at an ever earlier age. At the time of the ancient Indian cultural epoch this dependence lasted up to the age of 56, receding during that epoch to 49. During the Persian epoch it receded to the age of 42, during the Egyptian-Chaldean epoch to the age of 35, during the Graeco-Latin epoch to the age of 28, so that at the beginning of the present fifth post-Atlantean epoch man’s soul and spirit were dependent on the physical body only up to the age of 28 and it has by now receded to the age of 27. This has far-reaching consequences for mankind’s evolution. At the time the Mystery of Golgotha took place mankind’s age had receded to 33 and therefore coincided exactly with the age of Christ Jesus. This event bestowed upon man the power to take his inner development in hand which will otherwise cease at the age of 27.”
    http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA176/English/AP1987/19170529p01.html

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  5. Great article Jeremy

    🙂

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, I wonder about how and why middle age is decreasing and old-age is increasing. In much earlier times, it meant growing into wisdom and becoming a sage because the etheric body was loosed in order to levitate back to the sun, which is its source. Death did not exist, say in the ancient Indian and Persian epochs, but rather, simple translation into the spiritual worlds because old-age meant merely the experienced growth back into the spiritual worlds of our origin.

      In today’s world, this situation has been reversed. We arrive at middle age as a relatively young human being and then never change for the rest of our life. We grow into decrepitude rather than wisdom. The paradox is that by extending life into those years that are rather bankrupt of meaning and value, due to the overwhelming influences of abject materialism seen since the 19th century, certain conditions are created in which the human soul can be decimated in its frail state by simply growing old in the chronological sense of accumulating years lived.

      By extending human life into these latter years, in which we live into our 80’s and even 90’s, what largely takes place, if our organic structure holds up, is the loss of memory. From senility to dementia to alzheimer’s is a real fact in today’s world.

      As such, by the year 2050, Alzheimer’s Disease will be of epidemic proportion, and I don’t make the statistics. Even now, early onset alzheimer’s can be found in people in their early 60’s.

      So, people growing old today stand in the billions, and yet the Pixtonhouse will take care of at least twenty. Well, that’s a start. Congratulations!

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  6. ‘The ego or Self is the immortal and inalienable core of a human being’. Addendum: but on earth it lives in the physical body (Theosophy, GA009_c01_4). In the German text it reads “I” without quotation marks, apparently pointing to the effect of the ego on body and soul:

    The “I” lives in body and soul, but the spirit lives in the “I”. What there is of spirit in it is eternal, for the “I” [the I] receives its nature and significance from that with which it is bound up. In so far as it lives in the physical body, it is subject to the laws of the mineral world; through its ether body to the laws of propagation and growth; by virtue of the sentient and intellectual souls, to the laws of the soul world; in so far as it receives the spiritual into itself it is subject to the laws of the spirit. GA009_c01_4

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    • Thank you, Ton. I tend to avoid using the term ‘I’, because in spoken English and when talking to non-anthroposophists, it sounds the same and can be confused with ‘eye’. I’ve not yet found a satisfactory substitute term, though, and at various times have used ‘Ego’ (also confusing), ‘Self’ and ‘Individuality’.

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    • In the original German text of Theosophy (CW 9) ten descriptions of the Self are given without quotation marks (‘I’), which can be paralleled by ten equal descriptions of the Self with quotation marks (“I”):

      1. The more the ‘I’ is lord over body and soul, the more definitely organised, the more varied and the more richly coloured is the aura.
      The “I” becomes ever more and more ruler of body and soul. This also expresses itself in the aura.
      2. The effect of the ‘I’ on the aura can be seen by the “seeing” person.
      The “I” itself is invisible even to him; this remains truly within the veiled “holy of holies.”
      3. But the ‘I’ absorbs into itself the rays of the light which flashes up in a man as eternal light.
      As he gathers together the experiences of body and soul in the “I”, so too he causes the thoughts of truth and goodness to stream into the “I”.
      4. And what there is of spirit in the ‘I’ is eternal.
      It is through the eternal truth becoming thus individualised and bound up into one being with the “I,” that the “I” itself attains to eternity.
      5. For the ‘I’ receives its nature and significance from that with which it is bound up.
      Body and soul yield themselves up to the “I” in order to serve it; but the “I” yields itself up to the spirit in order that the spirit may fill it to overflowing.
      6. The ‘I’ lives in body and soul;
      The “I” lives in the soul.
      7. but the spirit lives in the ‘I’.
      And in the “I” the spirit is alive.
      8. The spirit sends its rays into the ‘I’ and fives in it as in a “sheath” or veil,
      Although the highest manifestation of the “I” belongs to the consciousness-soul,
      9. just as the ‘I’ lives in its sheaths, the body and soul.
      one must nevertheless say that this “I,” raying out from it, fills the whole of the soul, and through the soul exerts its action upon the body.
      10. The spirit develops the ‘I’ from within, outwards; the mineral world develops it from without, inwards.
      The phenomena of the senses reveal themselves to the “I” from the one side, the spirit reveals itself from the other.

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  7. More spiritual ideas could also mean more personal ideas:
    ”In the middle age the human being is more predominantly soul, and in old age he is most spiritual. … With the old man, who has really united his feelings with thinking-cognition, the concepts and ideas ring true; they are filled with warmth, and permeated with reality; they sound concrete and personal. Whilst with those who have ceased to develop beyond the stage of middle-aged manhood or womanhood the concepts and ideas sound theoretical, abstract, scientific.” GA0293/19190828

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    • Rudolf Steiner gave lectures on the deeper meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, given in chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew. Herein, we have nine beatitudes which convey body, soul, and spirit. GA0118/19100220.

      “The first verse of the Sermon on the Mount has to do with the physical body. (Blessed are the poor in spirit …)

      The second verse has to do with the etheric body (Blessed are they that mourn …)

      The third verse has to do with the astral body (Blessed are the meek …)

      The fourth verse has to do with the Sentient Soul (Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness …) Man’s conscience should not apply only to the physical realm. Those who in the Sentient Soul hunger and thirst after righteousness can be blessed.

      That a man can become in the Intellectual or Mind Soul is expressed in the verse: Blessed are the merciful. The Ego, the ‘I’ flashes up when we have passed from the Sentient Soul to the Mind Soul. Man must feel himself as an Ego and every other human being as well. What lives in the soul passes from Ego to Ego; subject and predicate are equal: ‘Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy — or love.’

      The Sermon on the Mount is a record unequaled in statement concerning the mighty transition inaugurated by Christ.”

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      • I seem to remember that Buddha gave a similar sermon at Benares. It concerned the eight “rights”, which would serve to contrast nicely with the nine “blesseds” of Christ some five hundred years later.

        According to what Christ said in chapter XVI of the Gospel of Matthew, it was upon the rock of Peter/Cepheus that He built His Church. It sure sounds like He meant these nine beatitudes given in chapter V. Please consider that the first three concern the physical, etheric, and astral bodies. The next three concern the sentient, intellectual, and consciousness soul. And the final three concern the spirit-self, life spirit, and spirit man.

        As such, we assuage these three distinctions; body, soul, and spirit, right here in this very life we are living. In other words:

        Birth to age 7 = physical body
        7 to 14 = etheric body
        14 to 21 = astral body
        21 to 28 = sentient soul
        28 to 35 = intellectual soul
        35 to 42 = consciousness soul
        42 to 49 = spirit-self
        49 to 56 = life spirit
        56 to 63 = spirit man

        And yet, it seems that without consulting, and giving keen attention to the eight “rights” of the Buddha, from the former era, that we could be considered lost in our very own time. Here is the paradox: We comprise body, soul, and spirit today, thanks to Christ, but we need the eightfold path of Buddha to supplement it.

        In other words, we need to practice what we preach. Consider the eight ‘rights’. What do they say? They say that Christ has bequeathed us with a founding that we still need to uphold in thinking, feeling, and willing. And this is where the Buddha comes in. The Buddha gave the Sermon at Benares, which in its way corresponds to the Sermon on the Mount.

        Yet, what Christ invoked with the Sermon on the Mount, does it not need what the Buddha taught about righteousness? Can we all not stand to improve our present disposition? I hope so.

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