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Malcolm Stern3 min

Eldership: Growing Old Gracefully

Malcolm Stern shares his insights on living consciously and embracing old age

When I was 60, I gave a talk at Alternatives on becoming an elder. I am now approaching my mid-70s and realise that I didn’t have a clue. In this, my final regular article for Kindred Spirit, I would like to explore what I am learning about eldership and, of course, the meaning and practice of living life as consciously and compassionately as possible. Buddhists talk of the inevitability of old age, disease and death. Our death-denying society sees such thinking as pessimistic and unwanted. Since my 60s, I have suffered the loss of a child and a serious heart attack. Both events have taught me about myself. I am learning viscerally that death is a part of life. I am learning that, cliched though it is, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. In addition, I now understand that we have to resource ourselves as we age in order to keep ourselves buoyant and vibrant.   

The youthfulness of purpose

In 2018 I went to a 50th reunion at my old school, Haberdashers’ Aske’s. What fascinated me was that probably 75% of those present were old men. On talking to lots of my former schoolmates, I began to realise that those who had a sense of purpose in their lives had staved off some of the ageing process. Those who were still passionate about their place in the world had maintained their vigour to a large degree. I saw that some of my former schoolmates had become pompous and arrogant, and was able to recognise that the persona in play was merely another shield and disguise of the true vulnerable and wise self. What I faced in 2014 after the death of my daughter, Melissa, was the recognition of the necessity for a like-minded community – what the Buddhists call sangha. I was able to recognise that I needed to both bear witness to others in their suffering, and to have my suffering borne witness to. I was able to realise the power of my intuition as well as my capacity for intellectual analysis. I made a practice of speaking my truth and developing my compassion for myself and others. I am consciously taking to heart the Dalai Lama’s profound statement that ‘my religion is kindness’. It took some years, but I also understood that suffering was an inevitable part of the process of living. In writing my book, Slay Your Dragons With Compassion, I began to exorcise some of the pain of the enormous loss that I had suffered.  

The gift of life

In 2021 I suffered a heart attack and, again, was educated by the process. In the ambulance on my way to hospital I was overtaken by a deep sense of peace. I knew that if I died at that moment, I had lived a life which I was mostly proud of and I had written my legacy book. Of course, there were areas where I regretted the pain I had caused others, but mostly it was a chance to reflect on who I was and what my path had been in the world. If I had died then and there, I was at peace with my lot. Although I recovered pretty well and still lead an active life, I’m consciously eating well, meditating daily, sleeping as well as possible and exercising regularly. We will all pass from this earth, but while I’m alive, I will do everything in my power to give my life meaning and richness. I recognise more and more that life is about service. When I’m doing what I’m best at, it brings a sense of joy. Each time I hurt another, the sadness I have caused rebounds onto me: I can’t escape the consequences of my actions and the impact on my conscience. I am a far better human being in my 70s than I ever was in my younger self. Over Christmas I spent time with my one-year-old grandson and got such joy from seeing him experimenting with the gift of life and witnessing his genuine laughter. I was overjoyed with what a wonderful parent my son has become. For me, life is a continual learning process which will be explored until the day I die. Thanks to Kindred Spirit for giving me an outlet for exploration, and to Watkins for publishing my book.   Find out more: This feature was originally published in Kindred Spirit Spring 2024 (Issue 190) available from 22 February, 2024. Click here to subscribe and have each new issue of Kindred Spirit delivered directly to your door. Alternatively, you can purchase individual magazines directly from our website.

Malcolm Stern

Malcolm Stern is the author of Slay Your Dragons With Compassion: Ten Ways to Thrive Even When it Feels Impossible (£12.99, Watkins Publishing).