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Debra Ollivier

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Marie de Hennezel On The Art Of Growing Old

Posted: 03/15/2012 11:00 am

Marie de Hennezel may not be a household name in America, but in France she's a trailblazer. The therapist who helped the late French President Jacques Mitterand through the final stages of his cancer, she's been leading the crusade to help people grow old gracefully, with dignity, and with joy. De Hennezel, who believes that we become truly old when we refuse to age, is the author of many books, including the international bestseller Intimate Death.

De Hennezel's most recent book, The Art of Growing Old, synthesizes many decades working with the elderly, both those who've aged well and those who have not. She presents a revelatory new look at age, viewing it through a philosophical and spiritual prism that redefines many of our entrenched fears and prejudices. It is, in essence, an ode to the imperatives of loving and living deeply, laced with evocative gems of wisdom from thinkers in various walks of life, including Hermann Hesse. "The task of being old," he wrote, "is as beautiful and sacred as that of being young."

I spoke with Marie de Hennezel from her home in Paris.

In your book you write about the challenges of reconciling life with death.

We live in an extremely anxious society that operates as if death were not part of life. And the more we deny death, the more anxious we become. In all other spiritual traditions and religions, no matter what they are -- if they're Buddhist, Christian or Islam -- all of them suggest that the more aware we become of the fragility of life and of our limited time on earth, the more we honor life. Becoming aware of this reality doesn't lead to depression; on the contrary, it heightens our awareness of the precious nature of life and of what's essential. We live in a society that, in denying death, has lost a measure of the sense of life.

You evoke many spiritual practices in your book, particularly Buddhism.

Yes. Buddhist philosophy is very rich. One aspect of Buddhism involves accepting what is, accepting what we can't change and letting go. These are big keys to aging that help us open up in new ways.

You've written about the "numinous" -- the sense of the divine, even the supernatural -- and the concept of non-action. There's the idea here that a different kind of action comes with the non-action associated with old age; that non-action is still experiential and rich.

When we're not perpetually in action, we have an internal openness to perceiving things that we don't normally possess. A simple example is when we're lying down, relaxing on the grass and just looking at the sky. We are in a state of non-action, and yet we suddenly perceive all sorts of things. We have a new capacity for marvel and contemplation. We see new things. We know that a whole part of our being is dormant when we're constantly in action. There is something very positive in non-action, because our senses are mobilized. We're aware of the sensory. We savor things more. Older people and those who are physically limited and accept their limitations still live well because they're open to a whole different domain. If you do five different things at once, as we often do in our active lives, we pass by so many things. Non-action is an interesting experience.

Many people are uncomfortable talking about death with their friends and loved ones who are close to that threshold.

To not speak with them openly is to handicap them. You have to speak of it so that people can get in touch with their inner resources. In wanting to protect elderly people, we actually weaken them.

One of the things that handicaps us, particularly women, is the difficultly we have accepting a change in our physical appearance. It's hard for people to free themselves from this preoccupation.

It's true. It's true that you have to stop fretting in front of the mirror at signs of age. There's a moment when you have to really focus on your inner life. This is harder for women because we're so bound by the image of seduction that's cultivated in our society. But I know a lot of women who have discovered that if they can connect to a sense of inner joy, there's a radiant beauty that comes through. Once a woman has understood that and can love herself this way, she has made great strides. Even at 90 years old, she can be radiant.

Georgia O Keefe in her older years certainly embodied that principle. She was not preoccupied with being anyone other than herself, even as she aged, and she was radiant in the most authentic way. That said, you French seem to know how to age better and more gracefully than us. I once asked Michelle Fitioussi, former executive editor of French "Elle," what she thought was the main difference Americans and the French. She said that you French "have a keen sense of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure." Do you agree?

It's true that we have the impression that Americans are far more fearful about aging than us. You do a lot of cosmetic surgery and seem to be more in denial. It might be a cliché, but that's the perception. That said, it's true that there's a culture of pleasure in France. And this does, indeed, play a role in aging well.

You write about the necessary inner resources we need to age well. What are some of those resources we can begin to cultivate at the age of 50?

There are many older people who are joyful and have a lightness of being. But the joys of old age are spiritual joys, not material ones. Even handicapped people can experience these joys. It's very mysterious, but there are people with all sorts of physical handicaps who still have well-developed inner resources. Humor is one of those important inner resources. So is not being preoccupied with oneself and with what's wrong. It's important to decentralize oneself from one's Self. And then there are all the spiritual resources we can tap into.

As people age, there is also an enormous amount of unfinished business. I think one aspect of aging well is being the most at peace with oneself and with others so that you possess a lightness of being and don't trail behind you lots of baggage, regrets and remorse. I think that's very important. I see people today at my age going back into therapy not for the long haul, for a short period of time -- six months for example. They want to do a sort of internal housekeeping and lighten the load. People who don't do that end up carrying a lot of baggage and are burdened by it as they age. It makes them even more fragile. I think this is part of prevention that starts earlier in life: lightening the load so that we can be at peace with ourselves, with others, and with the world at large.

That's a principle for life at all ages, isn't it?

Yes. Indeed it is.