Once upon a time there was an extraordinary musician called Pablo Casals. Pablo, a Spanish Catalan by birth, was a few weeks shy of his 97th birthday when he died in 1973.
Still revered by many as one of the greatest cellists ever, Pablo dedicated his life to his two passions: music and justice.
Whenever we reflect on how to age with grace and dignity (a subject that encompasses so much more than science, supplements and squats), we inevitably think back to the remarkable nonagenarians and centenarians we’ve read about or been lucky enough to interview. Every now and then we’re bowled over by the wisdom and insights offered by these inspirational people. They remind us of who we can be, what it is to be alive, why we’re here. Most of all, they show us how we too can grow old with passion, purpose and meaning.
Pablo – who also won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the UN Peace Medal for his pursuit of justice and for his fierce opposition to totalitarianism and oppression – began writing his autobiography in his 90s. He called it Joys and Sorrows, and here he shared his profound belief in the power of work and inner purpose to give us not only a long life, but a life worth living.
Working with purpose is the only genuine elixir of youth, he explained:
“On my last birthday, I was ninety-three years old…. But age is a relative matter. If you continue to work and to absorb the beauty in the world about you, you find that age does not necessarily mean getting old. At least not in the ordinary sense. I feel many things more intensely than ever before, and for me life grows more fascinating.”
Recalling how he read an article in The Sunday Times about an orchestra in the Caucasus (an area famed for the superb health and longevity of its inhabitants) comprised entirely of centenarians, Pablo wrote:
“In spite of their age, those musicians have not lost their zest for life. How does one explain this? I do not think the answer lies simply in their physical constitutions or in something unique about the climate in which they live. It has to do with their attitude toward life: and I believe that their ability to work is due in no small measure to the fact that they do work. Work helps prevent one from getting old. I, for one, cannot dream of retiring. Not now or ever… My work is my life. I cannot think of one without the other. To ‘retire’ means to me to begin to die. The man who works and is never bored is never old. Work and interest in worthwhile things are the best remedy for age.”
Later, he added: “One’s work should be a salute to life.”
Last month, Social Science and Medicine journal published a report showing that when people moved from unemployment (or stay-at-home parenting) into paid work, their risk of mental health problems fell by a third. As author, Dr Brendan Burchell of Cambridge University said, “unemployment is often detrimental to people’s wellbeing, negatively affecting identity, status, time use, and sense of collective purpose.” He found the psycho-social benefits of work could be achieved in as little as 8 hours of paid work a week. Read more about why “some paid work for the entire adult population is important” here.
Pablo began each day by going to his piano and playing two preludes and fugues by the composer, Bach. He explained the significance of this:
“It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being. The music is never the same for me, never. Each day is something new, fantastic, unbelievable.”
After playing the piano, Pablo would walk beside the sea. We now know that morning routines replete with exercise and sunlight are essential for our vitality. But Pablo’s daily practice did more than lift his energy and engage his mind. It reminded him, every day, of the great privilege of life.
“True, my walks are shorter than they used to be, but that does not lessen the wonder of the sea. How mysterious and beautiful is the sea! … It is never the same, never, not from one moment to the next, always in the process of change, always becoming something different and new.”
This is how we intend to age: still awed and inspired by the marvels around us, still able to see beauty in the smallest of things, still feeling wonder, gratitude and exuberance. Even as our knees creak or our joints ache (which they probably will!).
The Okinawans, Blue Zoners studied by longevity researchers, have no word for retirement. A hundred years ago the word ‘retirement’ as we know it didn’t exist in the UK either. In our book there’s a chapter in which we assess the research examining the impact of retirement. But the word ‘retirement’ says it all. Retire from the theatre of life? Never. Like Pablo Casals, we intend to work in whatever capacity we can, for as long as we can.
Work doesn’t have to mean slogging away in a windowless office. For the Okinawans, it means tending their gardens, cooking, looking after their grandchildren. For those with an enduring love of art, whatever its form, it means painting, writing, composing, singing, sculpting, dancing. For my 96-year old great aunt, it means volunteering with a charity for the lonely, and practising her faith.
For many, however, it actually means traditional paid working. My husband works with two architects aged 75 and 85. Still designing striking buildings. Still advising clients. Still travelling.
My hairdresser’s father still works as a dustman. He’s 71. And he has no intention of retiring. “We’ve asked him to stop,” she tells me. “But he likes showing up the youngsters – none of them can throw a bin like he can.”
What if retirement makes you old? This is the question posed by Camilla Cavendish in her new book, Extra Time. She says: “Droves of people are ‘unretiring’ and going back to work,” citing American data showing that 55-65 year olds are 65% more likely to start a business than 20-34 year olds. Better still, according to the Harvard Business Review, older entrepreneurs “have a much higher success rate.”
Meanwhile, last month saw the 100th birthday of actor, June Spencer, who has played the part of Peggy Woolley in The Archers for nearly 70 years. Still working, she told reporters she had “no plans to retire.”
This is the work that Pablo Casals meant when he described it as ‘a salute to life.’ Work that gives shape, meaning and intent to one’s existence. Work that makes the brain wrangle with the world around us. At 93, Pablo was still practicing the cello for three hours a day. Asked why, he replied: “I’m beginning to notice some improvement … And that’s the thing in me. I notice myself getting better at this.”
We can learn from his words: humility, perseverance, patience. Even as the world’s most eminent cellist, Pablo believed he could improve, that he had more to learn – that the world had more to give him and that he had more to give the world.
For an idea of the daily dishes Pablo may have tucked into at the home he made in Puerto Rico (and this is me hypothesising), try our South-American styled black bean soup or baked stuffed sweet potatoes.
My thanks to the blog www.brainpickings.org which prompted me to find out more about Pablo Casals.
Know any inspirational people like Pablo, or the nonagenarians in our book? Please do leave a comment. We’d love to hear about them. Or even to feature them here…