"Embracing life again – it's so invigorating"
Verena Kast, former Professor of Psychology and well-known non-fiction writer, talks about her latest book "Alter – immer für eine Überraschung gut" (Ageing - it's never short of surprises). Growing old gracefully, in her view, requires acceptance, spiritual development and a trained capacity to visualise.
Ms Kast, you write that the decade from 70 to 80 is the most emotionally fulfilling time of life. Why?
For a start, we are no longer working and can still do what we want while being free of obligations. We are also not yet truly old, as in we are still fit and able. Embracing life again and following your own interests – it's so invigorating.
Free of obligations – are people less prepared to compromise at that age?
When you're that age, it's important to your wellbeing to understand how the world works. Things are the way they are and you can accept them as such. This acceptance leads to a willingness to compromise. However, many people will no longer put up with bad compromises. And there's no need to get annoyed if your partner has had the same quirks for 40 years.
So it's more a case of "I can get angry but I don't have to"?
(laughs) Anger in itself does have meaning, but you don't have to indulge in it too much, which is what a lot of people do. If you wallow in your anger when you're young, it won't change just because you get old.
What are the implications for couples having 70 years together instead of 50?
That is one variant, the other is when you have different partners depending on your time of life. Couples who are highly compatible will remain strong when they're old. They know when their partner needs support. In other cases, it becomes apparent at some stage that they don't want to stay together forever. The first divorce spike occurs when the children leave home. Between the ages of 60 and 65, the divorce rate increases again. Retirement heralds the start of a new stage of life together and that's when many couples see how different their interests have become.
Will more 80-year-olds divorce in future?
Anything is possible. However, I don't believe people will divorce at the age of eighty. That's more the time when separation is brought by death.
Do people experience love, being in love and relationships differently at 70 than at 20?
The motivation is totally different between those ages. When you're 20 you fall in love and want to embark on a relationship and maybe start a family. At 70 you're happy to find someone who rekindles your feelings, someone with whom you feel close and secure and can have a sexual relationship with. Sex is also completely different at the age of 70 compared to when you're 20. It's more all-enveloping and about real closeness and tenderness. Knowing how to love is a much more rounded feeling when you're old.
There are ways of staying fit in old age, such as artificial joints, pacemakers and much more besides. How do we look after the spiritual side of ageing?
These physical aids are so helpful for a fulfilling old age. Imagine if there were no glasses! Nonetheless, ultimately these are things we buy, which are made for us by others, whereas only we can take care of our own souls. I would use the term inner serenity here. That means answering such questions as: am I happy? What interests me? What invigorates me? We need to broach these topics. Beauty lets us breathe inside. The way to find it is through being able to visualise. Interestingly, this ability does not decline with age. Our thought processes grow slower, which may make us seem less intelligent than before. However, our imagination remains intact and we can even improve it. Old people like to talk about the past; memories are a way of triggering the imagination. It's important that we don't confine our memories to bad experiences, we should prioritise good memories. Not so much the big, life-changing events, more the small treasured events. Telling others about good experiences and sharing them is very invigorating for the psyche.
So we should train our imagination as if it were a muscle?
Exactly, although training muscles usually involves a lot of effort while training your imagination is a pleasurable experience. We can still use our imagination for the future when we're old. My neighbour is 98 and she recently became uncertain about whether she could, or even wanted to, see next spring. As she loves spring so much, she simply imagined that it's spring now. She uses her memory to fuel these thoughts and thus creates her own piece of the future.
Your book is called "Altern – immer für eine Überraschung gut", which could be translated as Ageing - it's never short of surprises. What surprises are you finding?
I take a very broad view of what these surprises are. A surprise can also be being suddenly hurt by something that you didn't realise had the capacity to hurt you. We have to deal with these surprises and changes. I've always worked with young people. I'm becoming more thankful that we have these young people and that they will carry on with life. I don't mean that in a melancholy way, as in now it's their turn and I won't be around anymore. I'm thankful and interested in how they will live. I'm also surprised by the fact that I'm much more emotionally balanced than I used to be. It's all about accepting reality. If you think about it, growing old gracefully is a paradigm for a good life. Ageing is a permanent challenge.
You're 73 now: what do you associate personally with leading a self-determined life in old age?
I have worked and saved so I can organise my life the way I want. At the same time I am well aware that I will need more support. It will be hard for me to accept that. But I'll work it out. I've just renovated the roof on my house and added a photovoltaic system. I want to stay here for the next 20 years. So I interpret self-determination as growing old the way I want to. It's horrifying when everybody suddenly thinks you have to take a course in English or engage in an exotic hobby when you're 85. All these thoughts about what you have to do: work until you're 65 then serenely grow old and comply with the current norms in doing so. The challenge lies in admitting to ourselves that we are the age we are. Finally, I find it important to live with parting. It's precisely because we are nearing the end that we should live in the moment and enjoy it. Of course that is also important when you're young, but it's easier when you're old. It's about taking longer over things: spending more time gazing at the garden than you would once have done.
Interview: Ruth Hafen / Pictures: Lindau psychotherapy weeks, Palma Fiacco
Verena Kast: "Altern – immer für eine Überraschung gut" Patmos Verlag, 2016. Also available as an e-book.
Verena Kast (born 1943), studied psychology, philosophy and literature and did her doctorate in Jungian psychology. She was Professor of Psychology at Zurich University, lecturer and training analyst at the C. G. Jung Institute and had her own psychotherapy practice. She has published a wide range of work on the psychology of emotions, the principles underlying psychotherapy and the interpretation of tales and dreams. She has been President of the C. G. Jung Institute in Küsnacht, Zurich, since April 2014. Ms Kast lives in St. Gallen.