Extracts from The Warmth of the Heart Prevents the Body from Rusting, by Marie de Hennezel. It's Book of the Week on Radio 4 at the moment, and is full of beautiful, neat observations (listen to some here). There's very little to disagree with - one of the extracts read out on the radio discussed how awful it is that in retirement homes people aren't ever given double beds, they are effectively denied any recognition of sexuality. I'd never thought of it like that, but now I always will. A respected psychologist and psychotherapist, de Hennezel proposes that our exploration be guided by the belief that something within us does not grow old: ‘I shall call it the heart. I don’t mean the organ, which does of course age, but the capacity to love and to desire. The heart I refer to is that inexplicable, incomprehensible force which keeps the human being alive …'
If you only read one paragraph, read the last one.
TAP INTO YOUR CHARM Acceptance of all that we cannot change is crucial. But we can also look towards all that is to be discovered, for while the body may age, the inner person continues to evolve. Old age cannot be reduced to a series of losses and diminutions. Old age can be a process of opening up, not closing down, but this is something that has to be worked at.
There are some who become hypochondriacs, obsessed with their health. Others complain incessantly. The ideal is not to expect too much of others, but simply to be receptive. Being nice is the key, according to the writer Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber. ‘It is up to us to behave so that people enjoy listening to us. Certain people are very good at achieving this alchemy. It can be found in a look, a smile, a pleasant tone of voice on the telephone. They never complain, expect nothing, have their own network of relationships and take care of their own physical health. It is no longer a question of trying to seduce, but of remaining attractive, cultivating one’s charm.’
Charm comes from the soul. Charm comes from the ability to take an interest in others and in the world, to look at life with confidence, wonderment and gratitude.
‘People imagine that once we are past a certain age, we lose interest in life,’ Olivier de Ladoucette told me. ‘But they are mistaken. They do not realise that as they grow older, their psyche evolves. Things that are unimportant when we are young take on an incredible importance when we grow older: a child’s smile, for example. For an 80-year-old, it’s worth as much as a good three-star banquet when you are 40.’
As we grow older we have every chance of laying aside our egos and turning towards others. That is the only way to maintain a network of friends and good relations with one’s children.
NUTURE YOUR SENSUALITY In the 18th century, someone asked the Princess Palatine at what age sexual desire disappeared. ‘How should I know?’ she replied. ‘I’m only 80!’ Today many people believe that the elderly no longer have any desires or sexual life. There are women who consider themselves no longer fit to be seen or desirable, and they bury their sensuality and desire. Quite simply they can no longer bear themselves and they will never make love again. This renunciation of desire leads more quickly than one might imagine to real old age, to an absence of joy and vitality and to a dried-up heart.
An American study of people between the ages of 80 and 102 found that 63 per cent of the men and 30 per cent of the women still had sex, and that 82 per cent of the men and 64 per cent of the women had affectionate relationships. While sexual relations may be slower and less active, we know that they also become more sensual. ‘When I was younger, desire was more frequent,’ comments one of the women in Deirdre Fishel’s 2004 documentary Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women Over 65. ‘Now I am more at ease in my sexuality. There are so many ways of experiencing pleasure. For me, the caresses are more important than the act itself.’
I now look at women of my own age – I am 64 – and older with new eyes. One of the advantages of maturity is that people are freer and more receptive. There is freedom in that the children have left the nest and work considerations are often a thing of the past. But there is also an inner freedom, as we live the time we have left more in the present moment, in charge of our desires. We can be more sensual than ever, savouring life without haste or anxiety. We are so fixated on youthful norms that we find it difficult to imagine the amorous interplay between two bodies withered by age. Their desire is not fed by form or aesthetic beauty, but by the pleasure of being together in a joining of hearts, by the softness of skin, by the pace and presence of the other person and by the emotion of the encounter.
SAVOUR EVERY MOMENT During a recent trip to the Valais in Switzerland, I was sitting on a bench admiring the sweeping view when an old man emerged from a path and sat down beside me to catch his breath. When I expressed surprise that he had climbed so high at his age, he told me he walked an hour each day. ‘I train because, you see, each summer I treat myself and walk up as far as the Weisshorn hotel. In the old days I used to do this climb in an hour. I flew up; I didn’t even notice where I put my feet. Nowadays it takes me three hours, and I look at my feet while I am walking and take a new-found pleasure in noticing things I never used to see, such as the flowers lining the way. When I was young it was the physical performance that counted. I barely saw the landscape. Now I dwell in each second and my eyes are in a permanent state of ecstasy.’
When you have grown old, newness always comes from the inside. A new sensibility, a kind of sensual perception, becomes keener with age and mysteriously increases while the body diminishes. In an interview given around 20 years ago by the great French philosopher Michel Serres, he said that advancing age was a detachment from everything that weighed heavily upon him: the burdens of tradition, of learned truths, of family and of society. ‘Growing old is the opposite of what we might think; it is rejecting preconceived ideas, and becoming lighter.’
Instead of rebelling against the exhaustion and the slowing down that affects us when we grow older, why not stretch out and rest, use it as a way to take time to embrace the here and now? ‘I am beginning to understand the pleasure that the old experience when they sit on a bench for hours in the shade of a plane tree, doing nothing, gazing into the distance, silent, motionless, their hands folded,’ François Mitterrand told me in the last months of his life. He had been so active, yet he understood the virtues of ‘nonaction’.
To be filled with admiration and wonderment is a joy that is within everyone’s grasp. Some writers in their 80s talk movingly about this ability to marvel as one of the blessings of old age. I remember the last words of an old woman of 92, half an hour before her death. It was many years ago, when I was working as a psychologist at the bedsides of the dying. Her eyes filled with fire, she seized my hand and, gripping it forcefully, entrusted me with her last message: ‘My child, don’t be afraid of anything. Live! Live every bit of life that is given to you! For everything, everything is a gift from God.’ As I write these words, her words, I can still feel the energy she communicated to me as she spoke them. I can feel it as strongly as if it has just happened: proof that what comes from the heart and touches our hearts is eternal.