Dr Doug Wilson
Many of us would like to revisit our Golden years, our peak years of performance in some sphere or other. I was something then. Well most of us are still something now, no matter your physical status. Your high point may have been in a sporting event; you represented your school, or local club, or at best your country. You can look back at reports of your striking performance, and may even see it on replay TV. Wow!
But most athletic competence peaks in your late 20s or early 30s, no matter what the sport. It still remains a curiosity in international professional golf that the majority of major championships are won by players in their 20s, or early 30s. And yet playing golf for 20 or 30 years should enhance short game skills, to compensate for any minimal falloff in power for long distance driving. And yet only two players over the age of 45 have won a major since 1945, one of them being the great Jack Nicklaus. You may retain power, but optimal coordination of hand, eye, and muscle has already begun to fade in your 30s. So returning to the physical heyday is a rare option. Tiger Woods may break that barrier after his first win in recent years in late 2018, but let’s see.
In other spheres various skills are well retained and even improve with age. Many musicians, are able to maintain a high level of performance with age. The Rolling Stones are still prancing around on stages in their 70s. A number of outstanding musicians have performed well into their 80s. Vladimir Horowitz, the pianist in New York City in 1989. He had been giving public concerts in his mid-80s. Arthur Rubinstein, also a pianist, followed the experience of Mozart as a child prodigy, giving his first concert aged 7, and performing with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of 10. His last concert in New York was when he was 89. He was a buoyant, outrageous and magical spirit. He left his wife at the age of 90 for a woman aged 33. Verdi, the great Italian opera composer, died at the age of 89. His composing career after the early wonders of La Traviata, and Il Trovatore, continued into his 80s, with great works like Falstaff and Otello.
Politicians often exhibit great longevity, Konrad Adenauer was Chancellor of Germany at the age of 89. Churchill became Prime Minister again in the UK in his early 80s. The recently elected Prime Minister of Malaysia is 93. The present U.S. Senate includes a number of senators who head various influential committees, despite the fact they are in their 70s and even one or two in their 80s. Of course persistence in such elected positions is no indicator of quality of performance. But at least they were persistent in holding their job.
Of course our various faculties fade with time. The great majority of people need spectacles for reading by their mid-40s. Mental function reaches a peak in your late 20s before your thinking speed starts to slow in your 30s. Performance slows with some minor episodes of forgetfulness in your 50s. Other aspects of memory and executive function are already slowing at that stage. In your 70s and 80s most people struggle with working memory, both short-term and long-term.
Judgement and experience are entire other facets of life and competence, and worthy of a fresh story line.
But as you can’t turn back the clock, you can at least reminisce and enjoy the memories. Even failed attempts to relive past glories can have their impact.
Some years ago my 80-yearold parents were holidaying in the Pacific Island of Samoa. With them was a widowed friend of the same vintage. She had, in her long forgotten youth, been an old-style singer as a hobby, a talent long since laid to rest. One evening on tour the elderly widow sampled too many alcohol-spiked fruit cocktails, and decided she would return to her youth and to entertain other tourists with some of her golden hits from the 1940s. The rollicking music hall sing along Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay, delivered in the quavering voice of an octogenarian, was a serious mishit for the general audience of semi-inebriated, shiny-faced, 30 years younger tourists. She was persuaded to stop. In time everybody settled comfortably for a recovery night.
At 2am in the morning my father was called. Police here. Do you know a Mrs Walker? He did: She’s been travelling with us.
We have her here at the police station. My father hurriedly dressed. He was collected by a police car and taken to the station. There, looking very puzzled, was his elderly friend. She wore a police jacket over an ankle-length flannel nighty and bare feet. Apparently her vision of return to the old days had resurfaced She went walking at 1.00 am seeking an audience. She was eventually picked up from the side of the road by a local Samaritan, a bar tender on his way home, and brought on the back of his motorbike to the police station. Probably not a bad adventure, but one that emphasises we usually need to match our ambition to our current abilities.
Our biological and mental functions fade over decades, yet some balance is always being found so the real you remains, just a little more tottery over time. We may think more slowly, but the final thoughts emerging may well be better than ever, or at least very original. One caution for some is to regret what skills they’ve lost. That serves no end other than unresolved disappointment. Discard the regret, and replace with a soft smile remembering the good times gone by. For your age you may well be at your new peak.