What becomes of the solitary or hermit in old age? Or does the question assume that anything is or should be different after a long rehearsal for death, as Schopenhauer might put it? The acceptance of death prompts the search for wisdom over a lifetime. Life is an engagement with those elements of nature and the universe that will teach us how to craft this path. We stay engaged with life when we are engaged with these elemental teachers. To not be so engaged is truly to waste life and to be a walking dead.
Montaigne argued that no one falls into decrepitude; they get that way through bad habits long sustained. But sometimes nature afflicts the body for no obvious reason, sometimes the mind, and perhaps, we may add, always the soul. Montaigne would have death take him while planting cabbages. Seneca, too, complained gently about physical aches and pains but sees the whole process of aging as somehow bemusing.
The media is filled with stories about old men and women living alone and dying alone. Most suffer dementia; they are not hermits. If hermits grow old and come to be demented, that has nothing to do with eremitism, and their status of hermit or solitary becomes accidental and falls away. Sadness hovers over the plight of the old anyway, not as nature but in terms of how society deals with the old. Old age is the period in life when a person’s unattended matters of psychology and soul are no longer addressed by society, and life ebbs as quickly as an extinguishing candle.
Such neglect should not be the case, of course, but modern society has no place for the old who lack material or social provisions for their declining years. Further, modern society lacks a spiritual consensus, and abets the alienation of individuals and families wherein a solitary personality may have been shunned, ridiculed, or rejected.
In ancient India, the young man (it was always men) was expected to study the scriptures and make a decision about pursuing the life of a householder (involving marriage, child-rearing, and an occupation) or electing the life of a forest hermit or wandering mendicant. The original system presented four paths, the first being studentship in which the young man decided to live and study with a teacher. In each, one would grow old, of course. The householder was expected to retire to the forest, renouncing property and social engagement, upon the coming of age of his sons. Ultimately, seeing his life, health, and faculties waning, he was expected to stop eating (although there is no clear consensus about this).
The practical provisions for eremitism that existed in ancient India (and have their counterparts in other historical cultures of Asia and medieval Europe) understood that the individual must consciously make provisions for death, including eremitic options. But society, too, supported and encouraged these provisions in an objective but unintrusive way. Such societies saw eremitism as a microcosm of its own spiritual values, and so gave space and dignity to the hermit. This cannot be expected today except among consciously religious communities, or among the handful of friends that a hermit or solitary might have.
Instead, the example of the recluse occurs — far different from the ideal situation of the hermit. An example is in what the media typically reports: a recluse suffering from Diogenes syndrome.
Diogenes syndrome, also known as senior squalor syndrome, is a condition of elderly senility. The popular media is noticing it more frequently, labeling such seniors “recluses,” but occasionally and erroneously calling them “hermits.” Diogenes syndrome is a neglect of personal hygiene and, in their dwelling, a hoarding of rubbish, called syllogomania. Such seniors often come to the attention of authorities due to a fall or medical emergency. A Lancet article notes that of a sample studied that
Personality characteristics showed them to tend to be aloof, suspicious, emotionally labile, aggressive, group-dependent, and reality-distorting individuals. It is suggested that this syndrome may be a reaction late in life to stress in a certain type of personality.
Additionally, these seniors suffered nutritional deficiencies that may have further predisposed them to an inability to deal with stress. Clearly their personality characteristics were not those of the eremitic ideals we encounter everywhere in historical hermits. Indeed, as if underscoring the fact that these individuals were suffering acute stress and nutritional deficiencies, the Lancet article mentions that
Half showed no evidence of psychiatric disorder and possessed higher than average intelligence. Many had led successful professional and business lives, with good family backgrounds and upbringing.
An Encephale article notes that no single cause has been identifiable, and that most observers
agree that this behavior does not reflect free will and has consequently no theoretical relationship to the Greek philosopher. There is no true consensus about diagnostic criteria. They include the main features of the syndrome and exclude known psychiatric syndromes.
Here are some sources:
So the philosophers have it right. Sometimes the body betrays us, sometimes the mind, without obvious explanation if we have led active and conscientious lives. We have to rehearse for all these possibilities, expecting little solace from society and less from many peers, for that is the path of solitude.