Saturday, July 9, 2011

9th July 2011

What to do about the old? In the ancient world, the welfare state did not exist, and few people lived to be old in the first place (perhaps only 5% could expect to make 60). They still had strong views on the matter.

One of the most touching passages in Homer’s Iliad is spoken by Phoenix, the man who raised Achilles. Childless himself, he describes how he ‘always had to take you on my knees and feed you, cutting up your meat for you and holding the wine to your lips. You would often soak the front of my tunic, dribbling wine all down it - just like a baby! I went through a great deal for you and worked myself to the bone, aware that the gods were not going to send me a son of my own. So I tried to make you my son, godlike Achilles, so that you would save me some day from a miserable end.’ That was a duty of children. If an Athenian wanted to hold public office, he had to declare ‘whether he had family tombs and where they were, and whether he treated parents properly’.

Romans had always seen the family as the foundation of the stable society. The key to it was pietas, the respect for man and god that created and nourished the bonds that held the family together. Pius Aeneas, mythical ‘father’ of the Roman people, was the great exemplum, carrying his aged father on his shoulders out of burning Troy.

But there was another side to the question. In his dialogue on old age, Cicero argued that physical and mental decline could be kept at bay by frugal eating, moderate exercise and intellectual pursuits (very keen on memory exercises). Pliny the Younger admired the regimen of the 77-year old senator Spurinna: up an hour after dawn, three mile walk conversing with friends or hearing a book read, rest, carriage ride with wife and friends, another mile on foot, back to his room to write poetry in Latin and Greek, naked open-air exercise with a ball, bath, rest, and simple dinner accompanied by a play or a reading.

Old age is no respecter of persons. But while families have a responsibility—certainly to keep care homes up to scratch—so do oldies: while one can, preparing oneself to be old.

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