The Benefits of an Epicurean Old Age

Judith Davey

If we look up epicurean in the dictionary, we find definitions such as hedonistic, decadent and pleasure-seeking. An epicure is widely thought is as a sensualist with gourmet appetites. But the real Epicurus, a Greek philosopher, who lived around 300 BC and died at the age of 71, was not an epicurean in this sense at all. What we know of his philosophy – from only a few fragments which have survived – he believed in a simple live and let-live life, each person seeking his (or her) own tranquil pleasure, without an endless pursuit of the new and fashionable. Frantic ticking off of a “bucket list” (not Epicurus’ words of course) does not allow for calm and reflective appreciation of our old age, which is close to what Buddhism calls the “emptiness of striving”. High on Epicurus’ list of pleasures were not gourmet dishes, but calm companionship and growing your own food.

I recently read “Travels with Epicurus” by Daniel Klein. The subtitle is “A journey to a Greek Island in search of an authentic old age”[1] . Klein questions the compulsion to remain “forever young” – a superficial attempt to extend the prime of life and refuse to surrender to old age. At age 73, instead of spending thousands on dental treatment to maintain a youthful smile, Klein used the money for a trip to a Greek island with a suitcase full of philosophy books. The preface to the book is a quote from Epicurus:

It should not be the young man who is considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbour, having safeguarded his true happiness.

Sexist but worth thinking about. The view of old age is as the pinnacle of life, “as good as it gets”.

I was thinking about this philosophy when I reviewed an academic article on the Baby Boom generation and how they might reinvent old age and retirement [2]. This discussed volunteering as a worthwhile activity which can be beneficial for the individuals who undertake it. There is evidence that volunteering contributes to well-being, better health, higher life satisfaction and a reduced probability of cognitive decline. But what kind of volunteering?

Frequently volunteering is seen as a substitute for paid work, consistent with the “activity” theory of ageing, which calls upon the “young old” to maintain the lifestyles of middle age as long as possible. It sounds like the “forever young” approach. Instead, older people may be seeking something which is meaningful as well as making a difference. There needs to be something in it for themselves (something truly epicurean), with fewer hours and lower demands, and more potential for pleasure.

If this is true, then a different, and more creative, approach is needed to the recruitment and oversight of older volunteers. This may mean informal volunteering and community leadership – less formally tied to an organisational base, more flexible, and more consistent with the strengths of older people.

These strengths, especially at the neighbourhood level, were well illustrated at the time of the Canterbury earthquakes (see my blogs in April-June 2013). Stereotyping older people as vulnerable leads to under-valuing their potential contribution. As well as being the recipients of support after a disaster, older people were clearly an effective resource for community and family support in the immediate aftermath and the recovery period. This was Michael Annear’s conclusion in his PhD research [3]. He called older people the “unsung heroes in the aftermath of the earthquakes” and said that the diversity and effectiveness of their coping styles offered valuable lessons for younger people.

So perhaps there is a distinction between highly committed volunteers who do see this as a substitute for paid work (for example, in hospitals, with the police) and people, usually older people, with a much more casual and flexible attachment, who respond to opportunities to help and to gain satisfaction for themselves. The former may need effective day-to-day management, formal contracts and carefully planned resources. The latter type may flow from and be integrated with family and community interests. Volunteering then becomes as social and leisure activity, building on pre-existing social ties, bonding and developing ties with others – even if it is only stuffing envelopes or making tea. This approach will contribute to community building and social integration and will improve the wellbeing and satisfaction of those who participate in it. Would Epicurus have approved?

[1] Klein, David (2012) Travels with Epicurus: A journey to a Greek Island in search of an authentic old age. The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne.
[2] Chambre, S. and Netting, F. (August 2016) Baby Boomers and the long-term transformation of retirement and volunteering. Journal of Applied Gerontology, published on-line.
[3] Annear, M. J.(2013) Urban environmental pathways to active ageing: A participatory investigation amidst natural disasters. Doctoral thesis, University of Otago.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

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This entry was posted in Attitudes and values (culture, sexuality and spirituality). Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Benefits of an Epicurean Old Age

  1. Louise Rees says:

    Judith, thank for this. It’s so good to have a counterbalance to articles that seem to see positive ageing as defying the ageing process by running marathons, surfing etc. This is a sane and positive vision of later life that any older person could embrace.


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