a story lives forever
Sign in
Form submission failed!

Stay signed in

Recover your password?
Form submission failed!

Web of Stories Ltd would like to keep you informed about our products and services.

Please tick here if you would like us to keep you informed about our products and services.

I have read and accepted the Terms & Conditions.

Please note: Your email and any private information provided at registration will not be passed on to other individuals or organisations without your specific approval.

Video URL

You must be registered to use this feature. Sign in or register.


'I'm an aggressive atheist'


Extreme old age, enjoying old age and working in nursing homes
Oliver Sacks Scientist
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments

I’ve just been reading a very interesting article in the quarterly Journal of Psychoanalysis by a very old retired psychoanalyst. I don’t know his exact age but he’s clearly in the mid 90s, if not the late 90s, but is... is wonderfully intelligent and eloquent, writing about extreme old age and... and how people face old age and the notion that they have a very limited time left. He is a man who has been a... a rationalist and a sceptic all his life, but he has been very shaken by the death of his wife of 70 years and... cannot help wondering if there is any sort of... of post-mortem existence or survival. He brings this up very, very delicately, and I think perhaps more importantly he talks about a ‘mystical’ view of life, which is one to some extent removed from time and temporality, and competition, and other people, and a feeling of... of oneness with the universe.

And now I am getting up there myself – although I think someone close to 100 can have a radically different view of life from someone close to 80 – now I’m getting up there myself, I... I think that, like him, I’m beginning to taste certain advantages of... of old age. I think one of them is that I can, to some extent, see life, or my life, as a whole and... and experiences and feelings are organising themselves, and there's... there is some sense of completion, whatever the completion of a life means, and the wholeness of life rather than the feeling that while there’s time I must still make use of the pleasures that remain, although of course that... that feeling is also there.

I... I don’t entirely dislike being old now. It’s not a feeling that I’ve had for that long, I don’t think I started to have it until I was 73 or 74, and then it was connected with getting a cancer in my eye, and... and the prospect of... of illness and death associated with that. In fact the cancer hasn’t acted up, but who knows?

I’ve also had all sorts of orthopaedic problems in the last two years. I’ve had operations on knee, hip and back, and I’m somewhat less mobile than I was, but... but I think the inner organs are sound. But I... I do begin to have a certain sense of serenity and leisure, which I don’t think I had before. I saw this very clearly in my father when he was in his 80s and... he said that he had a feeling of time and leisure in his 80s, which he didn’t have in his 60s or his 70s. He continued as a busy general practitioner, in fact, until his dying day when he was 94, but some... something easy and spacious and far-sighted and... and serene got into him. I think I can see that in a lovely photo I... I have of him, and it may be all nonsense about… I think it is all nonsense about the golden years and senior citizens, these odious, odious fraudulent American phrases, and... but there... there can be something real and positive about... about aging, and maybe I should write about this, I don’t know.

Most of my professional experience, alas, is of... is of aging gone wrong and Alzheimer’s and illness. Though having said that, working with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who... who came together in the 1840s in Brittany and then spread all over the world, opening homes for the elderly, I’ve been going to the Little Sisters as a neurologist for... for nearly 40 years and I see every sort of medical and neurological problem, but I also see some very old people who wish to live in community, who have outlived their.. .their friends and neighbours and may not have any family. I see a lot of healthy and serene old people in their 90s, often as... as distinct from ill and frantic old people in their 70s. The... a lot of people in their 90s don’t seem to fear death, at least this is so with, I think, the Catholics in the home. They... they say that they have had a full life and Lord when, you know, when the Lord wants to take them, that’s okay.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Journal of Psychoanalysis, Little Sisters of the Poor, Alzheimer's disease, Brittany, Catholic

Duration: 6 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012