My mother will turn 85 next month. Not an exceptional number since people are living so much longer now, but for her to make it to age 80 was astounding. The odds were certainly against it – her father died at 44 and her mother at 58. Fortunately, she’s doing very well and we celebrate that hereditary anomaly. I was reminded of this when reading an essay by Oliver Sacks on turning 80, “The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding)” in the N.Y. Time’s Sunday Review.
You may remember the neurologist Sacks, portrayed in the movie “Awakenings” by Robin Williams, that was based on his work with Parkinson’s disease. Still writing and teaching neurology at the N.Y.U. School of medicine, Sacks reflected on his upcoming 80th birthday this week. Always the scientist, Sacks had a dream about the element mercury shortly before his birthday. As it happens, mercury’s element number is 80.
Sacks wrote he looks forward to turning 80, but considers some of the realities of his age, the threat of dementia and stroke, that a third of his contemporaries are dead, and notably, regrets he wasted so much time. “I’m glad I’m not dead!” he says. “I am grateful that I have experienced many things – some wonderful, some horrible – and been able to write a dozen books…” Putting his years lived in context, Sacks shares having gained the perspective of a “long view” and sense of history that eluded him at an earlier age.
It’s refreshing to hear Sack’s take on old age, as we so often hear the negative aspects of aging. He says, “I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”