Twilight Years Can Be Useful Years
By “Awake!” correspondent in Brazil
WITH each passing day we grow older. There is nothing we can do to prevent the aging process. But just as the twilight is a peaceful, useful time of day, so the twilight years of one’s life can be.
Do you consider only the gray hair, the wrinkles, the slowing step, and loss of loved ones? Or are you thankful for the many rich experiences and maturity of thought that come with age? Do you think that achievement and ability are highest in early years and then go rapidly downhill?
Productivity in Later Life
Reader’s Digest, drawing extensively from material edited by Doctors E. W. Busse and E. Pfeiffer, observed: “The peak of creative productivity remains high in later years, especially in fields such as mathematics, invention, botany, the humanities. In statesmanship, ability tends to increase with age, and in the areas of abstract thought, such as logic and philosophy, the potential peak years occur between ages 45 and 83. Deteriorating mental ability is not inevitable in old age.
Professor N. J. Berrill concurred. “At 80 the mental standard is still as good as it was at 35,” he wrote. “While the young mind tends to create new conceptions and ideas, the older mind . . . possesses greater steadiness, thoroughness and wealth of experience.”
The evidence bears out that mental ability does not deteriorate at the rate physical ability does. In a group of four hundred famous statesmen, painters, warriors, poets and writers, it was found that 35 percent of their greatest achievements were accomplished between the ages of sixty and seventy; 23 percent were accomplished between ages seventy and eighty, and 8 percent when these people were past eighty years of age! All together, two thirds were past sixty.
Enjoying Long Life
It has long been observed that some people live far beyond the average lifespan, and maintain remarkable physical and mental ability. The Israelite prophet Moses wrote: “The days of our years are seventy years; and if because of special mightiness they are eighty years.” (Ps. 90:10) And yet Moses was a vigorous eighty-year-old man when he led the nation of Israel out of Egypt, and of him forty years later the Bible says: “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old at his death. His eye had not grown dim, and his vital strength had not fled.”—Deut. 34:7.
Today there are also persons who live past a hundred. Not long ago Washington correspondent Bruce Biossat wrote: “Some 15,000 Americans, an amazing number, are 100 years or older. . . . About a third of the present centenarians are on the Social Security rolls.” Biossat said that there are some 250,000 Americans older than ninety, or about one in every 800.
Other places have a larger percentage of older persons, particularly the Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains, nestled between the Black and Caspian Seas, in the southwest part of the Soviet Union. In 1971, Sula Benet, professor of anthropology at Hunter College, New York city, visited the village of Dzhgerda in that area. She said: “There were 71 men and 110 women between 81 and 90 and 19 people over 91—15 per cent of the village population of 1,200.”
Then there is the Vilcabamba Valley in Ecuador, which rivals the southern Soviet Union’s longevity record. Brazil, too, boasts of its centenarians. On the high plateau of the State of Goiás lives Delfina da Costa Silva, who is said to be 155 years old. She still welcomes visitors with the proverbial cup of coffee, symbol of Brazilian hospitality.
Some Americans, too, are amazingly long-lived. Charlie Smith celebrated his 125th birthday July 4, 1967. Commenting on this, Time magazine observed: “Smith’s claim to great age has more documentary support than most, but it is not enough. None of the ‘evidence’ specifically mentions him, or proves he was born where and when he says he was. . . . So far, none of these records has documented the survival of a U.S. citizen past 111 years.”
But despite the lack of solid documentation for extremely old ages, it is obvious that some persons, especially in certain places, enjoy longer, healthful life. Why?
Secret of Longer Life
The good air of the higher altitude, the plain but nourishing food, and plenty of hard physical work are credited for the exceptional longevity of those in the southern Soviet Union. “The aged are never seen sitting in chairs for long periods,” Sula Benet reported. They consider overweight people as ill and, when seeing such a person, will inquire about his health.
Another important factor is that the elderly feel useful. Wrote Russian-born Doctor Albert Parry regarding rural life in the Caucasus Mountains: “The family and the community make the old people feel important or at least needed by coming to them for advice.”
So the aged are optimistic, and find pleasure in the prospect of continued life. As one ninety-nine-year-old of the village of Achandara said: “I am needed by my children and grandchildren, and it isn’t bad in this world—except that I can’t turn the earth over and it has become difficult to climb trees.”
That satisfying work and feeling useful are important to longevity has been documented. For example, in the United States, researchers at Duke University’s Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development recently reported that persons satisfied with their lot in life and happy with their work live longer. It has also been observed that longevity often runs in families, so heredity is also an important factor in longer life.
Aging and Its Causes
Yet, regardless of what man does, he grows old and dies. In fact, it is the exceptional person who lives much past eighty or ninety. As was noted in the Brazilian paper O Globo: “Even if Medicine and Surgery were to accomplish all the miracles we expect of them, there would be no prospect of greatly prolonging human life. This means that, even if man were protected from all accidents and all sickness possible and imaginable, our span of life would not go beyond an average of eighty years.”
Why is this? Why does the Sequoia tree live thousands of years and maintain its vigor, while the human frame weakens, shrinks and generally disappears in less than a century?
Science tells us that the continuation of life depends on the body’s ability to rebuild the cells. However, at a certain age the cells fail to be renewed properly. Thus a slowing down of the organism results and, finally, it comes to a complete stop. Dr. Isaac Asimov concluded: “Our cells seem to be ‘programmed’ by their genes gradually to undergo those changes with time which we call aging.”
Modern science has not provided a satisfying answer as to why these changes in the cells occur, resulting in aging and eventual death. It is believed by many doctors that aging itself is not a disease; it does not kill humans. Explained Dr. Moisés Barmak of São Paulo: “Old age, so often given as causa mortis in death certificates, does not exist. No one died of old age.” Yet all die. Why? The Bible explains: “Through one man [Adam] sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned.” That this is factual is readily observable: all men are imperfect, and all die.—Rom. 5:12.
Helping the Aged to Enjoy Later Years
The enjoyment that older persons find in life depends to a great extent on themselves. It is also influenced by the attitude of their children.
If a person has a real purpose in life, each day brings satisfaction, even though there may be pain or weakness with which to contend. Many are the elderly persons who have filled their minds and hearts with the good things found in God’s Word, and they take pleasure in sharing these with others. Some have the strength to get out to visit other people in their homes; others use the telephone or the mails; still others talk to people around them in a hospital ward or a nursing home. They appreciate what others do for them and what they personally are able to do to provide the necessities and comforts of life. But one of the biggest factors in their enjoyment of life is their being able to do something for others, something that is important, something that can help them to know God and his loving purpose to make this earth a Paradise, a place where the pains of old age will be no more, where death will cease, and even the dead will arise. It is sharing in activity such as that, more than anything else, that can make twilight years rewarding ones.—Rev. 21:3, 4; Acts 24:15.
But, whether those who are on in years cherish such a hope or not, they need a place to live. Some of them prefer to have their own home—perhaps near their children, but with the freedom to come and go without disturbing the plans that others may have.
In many cases, accident or illness makes it impossible for a widowed mother or a father who is alone to care for himself in later years. What then? Some children, with warm appreciation for what their parents have done, take them into their own homes, and the older ones, in turn, contribute the benefits of their experience in life to the household. In other cases arrangements have been made for them to stay in nursing homes, to receive care that may be needed. Sometimes this arrangement is made with genuine concern for all involved. In other cases it is done, not because it is the best arrangement, nor because it is what the children would want done for themselves in later years, but because it seems to be most convenient.
Convalescent and nursing homes have sprung up in increasing numbers, some 25,000 of them in the United States alone. Yet fewer than half of these offer skilled nursing. Some of these places appear more interested in realizing a monetary profit than in providing good care. Others, however, make a real effort to help the aged to enjoy their later years.
The city of São Paulo has about 100,000 persons past seventy years of age, and it has taken steps to improve conditions for the elderly. About a half hour’s automobile ride from the city’s center there is a veritable garden spot. Located in a beautiful setting is an institution for the aged who are in need of such facilities. There are about 900 residents living here.
There are separate quarters for men and for women, all clean, airy and well lighted. About 65 percent of the residents are unable to pay and are provided for freely; the others pay varying amounts. Those paying minimum prices live in wards of thirty beds; those paying top prices enjoy a private room.
Doctors, social-welfare workers and nurses are all in attendance. Sauna and steam baths are part of the health equipment. And a garden supplies fresh vegetables and fruit for the table.
To help make life meaningful, work is provided for the aged, and they are paid for what they do. They make bags, repair shoes and raise rabbits. Also, residents are able to go out and make purchases in the institution’s shop.
In other parts of the earth, governments have provided modest apartments at very low cost. These may afford greater privacy, but they also require that the individual be able to do more for himself.
It is true that advanced age is accompanied with reduced vigor and deterioration of body. Yet mental ability, experience, wisdom, capacity for work and creativity are still present and, in some cases, are even superior. By keeping active, exercising regularly, and sharing in constructive work, the twilight years can indeed be useful years.