Age is Just a Number: How to Live Fulfilling Lives in Old Age

In 1990, the United Nations declared that October 1 each year would be International Day of Older Persons. How necessary this is, given that much of the world is greying at a rapid rate. By 2030, it is estimated that 1 in 6 people in the world will be 60 years or over while the number of persons aged 80 years or older is expected to triple from now to reach 426 million by 2050. Therefore, aging gracefully will be more pressing than ever for a growing number of seniors. How to do that is the big question. Who better to tap for advice than some of the brightest minds on the planet?

In this post, I share words of wisdom from a distinguished group of senior artists, scientists, poets and philosophers – many of whom Nobel laureates – on their “secret sauce” for living fulfilling lives. May their words teach us to wisely forge our own life path and live rich and meaningful lives through our finite journey here on earth.    

I will start with a sweet yet profound quote from the 1913 Nobel laureate for Literature, the poet and philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore.

“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), poet and philosopher, winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature.

And we can say amen to that. Being in the moment, as Tagore alludes, enriches our minds because only then, do we have the “bandwidth” to observe the world, to pay attention to that which brings joy and meaning to our lives.

The great Chilean poet and Nobel laureate in Literature, Pablo Neruda echoes the same sentiment. “We have to discard our past”, Neruda begins in one of his poem, so we can let each day gleam…

like an empty
There is nothing, there was always nothing.
It all has to be filled
with a new, expanding

~ Excerpts from “Past” by Pablo Neruda

Staying positive through the vicissitudes of life is always a good thing regardless of how young or old we are. And for seniors, it is perhaps useful to remember that the sun doesn’t set just because you reach old age! As the French philosopher, Albert Camus once said:

“No one who lives in sunlight makes a failure of their life.”

French philosopher and writer, Albert Camus (1913 – 1960). Camus was awarded the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.”

There’s a version of a country song made popular by Alan Jackson that starts with the line: “The older I get, the fewer friends I have.” That, unfortunately, is a reality that hits many seniors hard. Your past friends may have either passed on, or faded from your life and new friendships can be hard to nurture. So solitude is something to face up to, and if that’s your situation, why not make the best of it? Here’s a quote from the great Columbian novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

“The secret of a good old age is simply an honourable pact with solitude.”

Gabriel Marquez, by the way, is the master of the literary genre called magical realism in which fantasy and realism are combined, which he parlayed into profound short stories and novels, including his masterpiece, A Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982.

Gabriel Marquez (1927 – 2014)

Here’s another nugget of solitude wisdom from the archetype genius of science, Albert Einstein:

“I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity”

But how exactly do we turn solitude, more maligned than loved, into something “delicious”? Here’s how, according to the eminent British mathematician and philosophy, Bertrand Russell (1872-1990):

Make your interest gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”

Or consider the following advice from physicist, James Cronin (1931-2016) who won the 1980 Physics Nobel Prize ‘for the discovery of violation of fundamental symmetry principles in the decay of neutral K-mesons.’

“When I ask myself ‘who are the happiest people on the planet?’ my answer is “those who can’t wait to wake up in the morning to get back to what they were doing the day before”

James Cronin (1931 – 2016) was an American particle physicist. He and co-researcher Val Logsdon Fitch were awarded the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics for a 1964 experiment that proved that certain subatomic reactions do not adhere to fundamental symmetry.

I guess what Cronin is telling us is to find something to do that consistently gives us a sense of inner pride and satisfaction that is immune to what others say and think. What could that be?

“Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas”

There you have it: ideas rather than people. Words of wisdom from the 1903 Nobel laureate for Chemistry, Marie Currie, who is best known for her discovery of radioactivity. How pertinent her advice in this age of social media where many are contented to just skim through content (not all good) and where anything longer than three minutes is deemed unbearable.

Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two scientific fields – chemistry and physics.

The wellspring of great ideas is of course, imagination of a fertile mind. Albert Einstein again:

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

To be imaginative is to exercise our minds and travel to places we’ve never been, like Einstein himself who discovered the general principles of relativity by asking the seemingly absurd question: what would happen if you catch up to a beam of light as it moved?

Artists, of course, have to be imaginative to do art (I include poetry, music and dance), for art making is about transcending the limitations of reality into imagined worlds rich with possibilities. As the French novelist Romain Rolland puts it:

“It is the artist’s job to create sunshine when there is none”

Rolland (1866 – 1944) was awarded the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature “as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings.” A tall order that calls for the highest creativity indeed.

I guess if there’s a bright side to aging, it is that one has more free time to pursue one’s passions, be it learning to write poetry, or even whole novels. This next quote comes from the great American novelist, Toni Morrison who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Beloved (1967) and the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature for writing novels that are “characterized by visionary force and poetic import, (and that) gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Icon of American literature, Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019)

One last quote and a monumental one, from the 1977 Nobel laureate for Physiology or Medicine, Rosalyn Yallow, who did pioneering research on the molecular structures of important bio-molecules.

“The excitement of learning separates youth from old age … As long as you’re learning, you’re not old”

Rosalyn Yalow (1921 – 2011)

May the force be with all seniors on this International Day for Older Persons!

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