Age is just a number: Charles Eugster

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Dec 012017

Re-inventing your health in later life

Charles Eugster is a pioneer in health regimes for people over 65, and well beyond. He has won medals for rowing and sprinting in his eighties and nineties! However, his book offers a lot of help for oldies less fanatically fit then he is.

Charles is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine: when in his eighties he started research and personal experiments with ways to rebuild his health and fitness. His approach has three key elements: work, nutrition, and exercise. This book is relevant for anyone age 55 and over: Charles says that decisions from this age on regarding his three key elements have a big impact on the rest of our lives.

Keeping active, physically and mentally, is a crucial part of creative ageing, so he advocates continuing to work till well past statutory retirement age. He acknowledges that it’s harder to find employment when you’re older, but points out that in the US, there are twice as many tech startup founders over 50 as under 25.

The most original and informative parts of this book are about exercise. Loss of muscle mass, or sarcopenia, begins around 30, so by age 60 you’ll typically have lost 15% of your muscle mass. However, Charles’ training with expert coaches has shown how one can regenerate muscle mass even at advanced ages. Key to this is doing resistance strength work, not just aerobic exercise.

This book has a detailed guide to exercises you can do for yourself at home or outdoors, and advice on possibly using a gym. However, he recommends consulting a doctor, and recognises that few professionals in gyms know much about exercise for the over-sixties.

There’s also a chapter on nutrition and diet. Charles’ own life story is woven through the book, and makes entertaining reading. If anyone can encourage you out of your comfy armchair, he can!

Elderwoman: book by Marian van Eyk McCain

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Jan 012017

Is elderhood different for men and women? Yes and no!

The question of gender differences in elderhood has been a big one for me as I approach leading a mixed workshop on this theme for the first time, at Findhorn February 23 – March 1.

I’ve discussed the gender question with women and men elders I know, and by reading Elderwoman, and comparing it with my very different, forthcoming book on elderhood for men, Old Farts or New Starts: A Guide to Happiness for Midlife Men.

This blog will inevitably offer generalisations, and your comments or corrections are welcome.

It intrigued me, as it may you, to unpick the differences due to the writers, and those due to the subject matter.  I really enjoyed reading Marian’s book, and believe it would be helpful to women: the style and approach are inclusive, conversational, fluid, full of personal anecdote.  All of this could, I believe, make most men impatient: by contrast, my book is more structured, objective, with lots of practical solution-focussed advice.

I’m also struck by frequent references to Marian’s grandmother and daughters, and the sense of female wisdom shared down the generations, in a way I’ve almost never heard among men.  There’s been a lot of poor fathering over the years!

From Elderwoman, I conclude that one of the big gender differences in elderhood is that women face it more collectively.  Men often face the challenges of ageing alone, and need new skills to find the collective support and wisdom they also need.  Marian uses phrases like “the stages of our female lives”, which it’s hard to imagine mirrored in a book for men.

An encouraging parallel, based on these two books, is the potential of elders to be activists, whether by presence or more actively, around the big issues like sustainability.  Another is the opportunity to “start again from scratch” as she puts it.

Elderwoman is a book which faces the losses of ageing, but within an affirming and practically positive context.  It encourages people to become elders in their own way, and finally loosen the pressures of other people’s expectations, and the consumer society.  I support Marian’s view that the elders are best placed to break Western society’s addiction to its consumptive, materialist way of life.

Marian sees the most important elderwoman principle as “radical aliveness…the art of saying ‘yes’ to life, remaining fully open to all experience, whether pleasant or painful.”  I’d regard this quality as vital for male elders too.

Life Threatening Crises for Friends

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Jan 012017

In the past few months, the wives of two close friends have had late diagnoses of advanced cancer which could be fatal.  The husband of another friend has had a stroke.  At the Summer School I go to each year, two couples from last year are now singles, having lost their spouse to cancer.

These are relatively young people in their fifties and sixties, with a history of good health and lifestyle.

I feel deeply upset and shaky in the face of all this.  The presence of death feels big and close.  The distress of the healthy partner is almost unbearable for me: I feel powerless to comfort them or alleviate the situation.

I’ve read some good books and articles about dying, I know some of the good approaches.  But it would feel false, almost insulting, to try quoting things to these close friends of mine who are in such pain.  And whilst most of my blog postings try to offer constructive tips to you, the reader, that feels a bit too neat this time.

The word compassion literally means, ‘to feel with’.  My impression is that when I feel distress along with my friend’s, it does give him or her some comfort and support.  The desire in me to say something which would magically heal his or her pain, or make his or her partner well, I need to realise is a poignantly young, child part of me, who also needs my compassion – but the child’s desire is impossible, is best let go.

My friend’s pain, his or her partner’s illness, are true.  The fear in me is a child’s sense of inadequacy because I can’t make it all OK.  As I try to find my clear, loving adult and spiritual centre, I know I don’t have to make it all right.  Nor do I have to offer clarity in a time of overwhelming uncertainties.  All I need to do is be present in a loving way.

In my own life, I have lived through enough crises and anguish to have faith – a sense that what’s happening is the right thing, and eventually I may understand why.  Currently, my partner Linda and I are trying to live each day as if it’s our last: this is helping us to enjoy each other and all our blessings more deeply.  It’s not stirring up fears of death.

In a strange way, it seems to me that the distress of close friends is harder to bear than my own.

Here’s the letter I sent to one close friend:

Dear Steve

I feel gutted by the news about Sarah’s illness.  I hope that you can both feel my love and prayers, and those of the many friends around you, and the support of the angels and spirits who I believe are with us all.

This must be heart-breaking, and I hope you can open into whatever are the blessings of the crisis – they must be there.  My guess is that it’s a time to drop whatever ideas you had about the future, and just feel fully the love between you now.

If I can help in any way, physically or emotionally, please let me know.

With much love to you both,




Exploring Elderhood: Creating the map

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Jan 012017

The idea of elderhood may sound good, but where do we find the role models, the route to this destination?  These days, we need to create our own map.  The place of elders in tribal society offers some useful ideas: but our own times are so different that we can’t start from here.  People just aren’t waiting around to receive the wisdom of the elders any more.

If we think about the maiden-mother-crone model of three ages of womanhood, it shows us a big part of the problem, for men and women: getting old is not seen as desirable or fruitful.  The media assail us with the cult of youth.  So how do we start the map-making? One relevant feature of tribal elders is the way peer groups would evolve a wise response to new challenges.  I have helped create such gatherings for maturing men and women, and they can start the process of finding yourself as an elder.  Discovering your identity through a group, not individually, may be novel in our society, but it’s relevant in elderhood.

Carl Jung said that in early adulthood, we choose to fulfil a few parts of ourselves, and if in midlife we don’t open the door to the other parts, they’ll break in through the window.  So there’s an inner collective involved in elderhood as well as an outer: your inner voices not only need to be heard, but also gathered and guided in a positive direction.

I believe adolescence is a useful model for entering elderhood: both are major transitions where the past can’t really guide the future.  And in both, some people step into the new stage smoothly, as if born to it, and others struggle.  I haven’t found elderhood easy: partly because I was still hooked on being a warrior, a role that suited my readiness for heroic struggle.

So you may find that your threshold into elderhood is a loss or a shipwreck.  Some women experience menopause as a loss that needs grieving.  Or it may be a more general sense that you are losing a level of health and energy as you age.  Episodes of loss like this are good to face, and can move you through to gratitude for all the capacities you still have.

Recalling Jung’s comments, elderhood is a time to find new aspects of yourself, and new skills which can replace what’s lost.  For me, one of the painful changes is having less control in my life, less power to make things happen: but the gift in this is learning to influence situations by the qualities I embody, and the reflections and support I offer others, which I believe is the way of elderhood.  The good thing about the lack of role models for elderhood is that you’re free to figure out how you want to do it.  Just beware of being limited by the attitudes of society, family or friends.

It’s a fair generalisation that most adults in their 20s through 40s narrow their focus: marriage, kids, work, home take most of their attention, although we now see more individuals taking a different path.  One of the gifts of the years beyond 50 is the chance to raise your head and look around more widely.  This can include deeper links with your local community, new friends, exploring a spiritual path, and finding ways to meet the big issues of our times.  One of the vital roles of elders is providing a role model and wake-up call on issues where society is in denial, and this is urgently needed for humanity’s addictive consumption patterns and loss of connection with the earth.

Another navigation point which I suggest in mapping your elderhood is how you can serve the tribe.  As you look at the troubles and beauty of today’s world, are there issues that arouse you or inspire you?  If so, be persistent in finding ways to act on your passion and invite other elders to act with you.  Our world may not be calling for the help of the elders, but it certainly needs it.


Exploring elderhood at Findhorn Foundation

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Jan 012017

Rich, expansive, poignant, nurturing and more…

In February 2013, I brought a vision to fruition: co-leading a week-long programme at Findhorn Foundation on elderhood.  My co-facilitator Ineke and I, had high hopes for the week, which were more than fulfilled: a tribute to the quality of our participants, to the magic of this spiritual community, and the great support we received from the community there.

We hoped to explore elderhood on the inner and outer, individual and collective levels, and amply fulfilled this hope.  We dug below the fear and denial so common about ageing and dying, and recognised the gifts and joys of elderhood, as well as the losses.  As one participant said, “When time and energy are limited, and health is variable, it’s an invitation to live wisely, focus on what really matters, enjoy every moment.”

We used a wide range of approaches, including sharings, meditations, solo time, storytelling, sacred dance, and some inspiring sessions with elders’ organisations around Findhorn.  The work of a few Findhorn elders in running the Community Care Circle is especially impressive: includes organising paid and voluntary care for those who need it, building care flats for those whose own home is unsuitable, and providing training and practical advice on many aspects of ageing, including how to receive care.

One of the most powerful experiences of the week was when our group joined the weekly Elders Meditation in the main Sanctuary.  There was such power and character in the silent presence of nearly thirty elders, with a combined age around 2000 years.  For me it highlighted a sense that the beauty of elderhood is about the emergence of full, authentic individuality, and its miraculous interweaving with others.

Findhorn is a good role model of a community which already includes and supports its elders pretty well.  Our schedule enabled our participants to enjoy this, for example Taize singing every morning, movement classes for oldies, shared meals in the community centre, sacred dance and other shared events in the evenings.

It was very satisfying to find that our week helped the whole Findhorn community to recognise and appreciate what it already does to support the elders, and also to recognise and start working on what more could be done.  For example, it would be great if the loving and personal quality of care already provided on a small scale could be expanded more widely, and if this became a role model for mainstream society.  This is one of various ideas which I and others are now exploring.  Perhaps a good summary of the whole week is this comment from one participant, “From this week I have the sense that ‘we have to do something’, and also that ‘all is well’.  I like both feelings.”


Mar 032014

As we look forward to our upcoming Creative Maturity event: Inner Peace in a Changing World, I was thinking about a similar one, Exploring Elderhood, Ineke and I led a week in 2013, which proved to be a powerful experience for all of us on the group, and for others in the Findhorn community.  I wanted to share some of this experience with you.

Findhorn groupWe hoped to explore elderhood on the inner and outer, individual and collective levels, and amply fulfilled this hope.  We dug below the fear and denial so common about ageing and dying, and recognised the gifts and joys of elderhood, as well as the losses.  As one participant said, “When time and energy are limited, and health is variable, it’s an invitation to live wisely, focus on what really matters, enjoy every moment.”

One of the most powerful experiences of the week was when our group joined the weekly Elders Meditation in the main Sanctuary.  There was such power and character in the silent presence of nearly thirty elders, with a combined age around 2000 years.  For me it highlighted a sense that the beauty of elderhood is about the emergence of full, authentic, eccentric  individuality, and its miraculous interweaving with others.

My own interest in elderhood began a few years ago when I turned 60, and has grown since 2011, when I co-founded the Men Beyond 50 Network and started writing a book for men of this ager, No Shed Required, to be published in September 2013.The inspiration for the workshop came when I was visiting Findhorn in March 2012.  I felt impressed by what this community is already doing to support its elders, and had the vision of briefing a group to learn from this.

The breadth and wisdom in the inputs our group received has left me very touched, and I wanted to express my thanks via this piece in Rainbow Bridge.  I can’t list all those who engaged with us, but especially want to thank Cornelia, Fay, Judith and Marilyn of the Community Care Circle who spent several hours in dialogue with us about their work.

Our group spent time not only learning how elders are already supported and recognised at Findhorn, but also exploring how this could be built on.  This is especially important as the number and  support needs of elders at Findhorn are likely to grow considerably in the next few years.

I am hopeful that our group has both raised awareness of the good work already been done, and has been a catalyst to initiate research on the services and facilities needed in future involving some of the participants in our group, such as Marcus Lindner and David Mead.  I am continuing to support this at a distance and by occasional visits.

The biggest surprise of my work on elderhood has been how most people are in denial about ageing.  I’ve even found a few of these at Findhorn!  One of the best ways to bring people out of denial is to show them positive role models, and I believe this could be one of the new missions for Findhorn in the next 50 years.

There’s plenty of evidence that elders who are active and valued in their community have better health and wellbeing.  It would also be great if the loving and personal quality of care already provided on a small scale via the Community Care Circle could be expanded, and made available more widely across Moray.  It’s an exciting possibility to explore.

Alan Heeks