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Living Well in Old Age

by Vicki McKenna(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 214 - May 2014


Knowing others is intelligence,

Knowing the self is enlightenment.

Mastering others requires force,

Mastering the self is true strength.

She who is contented is wealthy.

She who perseveres succeeds.

She who stays in the centre endures.

She who dies, but does not die,

Has attained true longevity (shou).

-Dao De Ching verse 33 

Guilt and Shame

My father in law is now 87 and rapidly ageing. A month ago he could walk around town; two weeks ago he had a fall and since then has weakened and can hardly walk around his flat. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ageing thus: “the process of change in the properties of a material occurring over a period, either spontaneously or through deliberate action”. Certainly my father in law is experiencing radical changes in the material of his physical body and is finding these changes very frustrating and difficult to deal with. And sadly, he resists care offered to him – he feels ashamed that he is now so frail, and although he could do with much more help he is determined to stoically carry on without all the assistance he so obviously needs.

Vicki McKenna Old Age

I have a patient who feels equally ashamed of growing old, but approaches her changes with a different sort of resistance – outright denial. Keeping up with fashion, she wears clothes more suited to a twenty year old and as wrinkles appear she has botox treatments. At sixty years of age she tries to look several decades younger and is panicked at the thought that time is passing. Cramming as much as she can onto a ‘bucket list’ she is a whirlwind of activity and then wonders why she feels exhausted and anxious!

Even before we get to an advanced stage of old age, many of us have a sense of guilt and shame as we feel a diminishing of energy and observe our crows’ feet and greying hair. We feel that we have ‘let ourselves go’, have allowed ourselves to become weak and as we see it, useless. It is unhelpful that our society promotes the cult of youth; everywhere we see images of young, vibrant people and there is a sense that anyone old and wrinkly needs to keep out of sight, hidden away. Feeling ashamed, some of us respond to ageing by resisting help offered whilst others of us react with panic and work hard to keep up a façade of youth.

High Esteem

Daoists have a much more encouraging and uplifting view of the changes we call ageing. They hold in high esteem those who have grown old, seeing them as having accrued valuable life experience through handling with confidence the process of change. Thus, instead of seeing old age as a regrettable and negative state, Daoists see it as an opportunity to cultivate self-knowledge, self-discipline and perseverance as the Dao De Ching explains in verse 33 above. Certainly in the past there has been a tradition amongst some Daoists to create elixirs that would grant immortality but this is not the Daoism of the Dao De Ching. Age and dying are seen here to be a valuable part of life – these are changes that give us the opportunity to slow down and become quieter and so deepen our wisdom and inner strength. Thus we die to the frantically busy world of our youthful lives, we let go of pushing ourselves beyond our limits and so live more fully and wisely – as the verse says ;”She who dies, but does not die, Has attained true longevity” .

As we get older we need to let go of packing in swathes of activities and instead focus on deepening our inner strength and wisdom. And if and when we weaken and find ourselves frail, then too we focus on deepening our inner strength and wisdom. To do this we align with the stillness within and cultivate an attitude of quiet relaxation in all our activities. The Daoist way is to always yield and relax in the face of whatever life presents; resistance is not only futile but exhausting! And as our Kidney Essence, the oil in our lamp so to speak, is diminishing with age we need to do all we can to maintain and preserve it by cutting stress to a minimum.

We work with the changes of old age by accepting firstly that stressors need to be kept to an absolute minimum -  keep life simple and remind yourself that stress is exacerbated by bad habits! Smoking, over eating and being too sedentary are going to make any unavoidable stress worse, so cultivate healthy eating and life style habits. Take on new hobbies, have fun with your grandchildren, learn Chi Gung or tap dancing – whatever floats your boat! Above all else, take time throughout the day to be still and quiet – twenty minutes meditation twice a day can be transformative in helping you to feel clearer and more energized.

Let us never romanticize old age. It can be a painful and challenging time. But we do not need to suffer through it. Focus on doing all that is life enhancing and pleasurable, but accept that you cannot do as much as you previously did - pace your activities. And always accept help when it is offered - do not struggle stoically! Most of all remember that this is a time to align with the quiet and calm centre within and enjoy stillness and silence, so that you may handle with confidence all the changes that life brings .


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About Vicki McKenna

Vicki McKenna BA Lic Ac trained at The College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture in Leamington Spa with Professor Worsley from 1981 gaining her Lic Ac. in 1984 and has been practising acupuncture in Scotland since then. Her book A Balanced Way Of Living; Practical and Holistic Strategies for Coping with Post Polio Syndrome is available from 


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