Ageing and Nostalgia

Apparently the word ‘ nostalgia’ was coined in 1678, by a Swiss physician to express ‘the pain a sick person feels because he is not in his native land, or fears never to see it again’, and was used to explain a serious medical disorder. In the following two centuries the illness was named as ‘maladie du pays’ (country sickness) in France, ‘heimweh (home pain) in Germany and ‘mal de corazon’ (heart pain) in Spanish. Now we use the word more generally and often very personally, as we look back to moments that have become idealised in our memory – the so called ‘good old days’! It can be a generational thing with a sociological dimension. Thus in Germany the word ‘ostalgie’ refers to life in East Germany when the old communist regime was swept away to embrace the new freedoms of the west. Apparently many Germans in the east miss the everyday life of the GDR and regret the dominance of capitalist values.

With a limited future ahead and perhaps losing the social perspective that has affected if not actually shaped our lives, it’s inevitable that older people will look back.

There is tremendous refreshment in doing that. Our life is continuous and we take our past with us as we travel. There is much to cherish and affirm in that process. A characteristic of old age is the desire to identify the years of our life and many people put together a simple autobiography for themselves, and even in some cases go on to publish the result as a friend of mine has recently done. There’s a line from an old song – ‘my living has not been in vain’ , and we would like to have a bit of evidence that this may be true of us.

But perhaps the earliest use of the word still has some relevance. As older people we are, of course, in favour of fulfilment and wellbeing but too much nostalgia can favour myth over reality, perhaps reduce our pleasure in living, and even erode our health.

We have a past – no one can deny it! – but our life surely belongs to today and tomorrow. The indefatigable Wikipedia website – to which I am indebted for some of these notes – suggests that nostalgia can carry with it symptoms that are real and physical and include pain in the pit of the stomach, tightening of chest or throat and nostalgia that leads to despair. So, be careful about nostalgia? Too much of this good thing – like so many others – might be bad for us!