Changing Attitudes Toward Old Age
AT WHAT age are you old? The answer seems to depend on whom you ask. Teenagers will happily banish anyone over 25 to this category.
On the other hand, opera singers do not reach their prime until much later in life. And a report in Australia’s newspaper The Sun-Herald claims regarding those intent on climbing the corporate ladder: “Today’s truth is that if you haven’t made it by 40, you never will.”
Some may assume that people who are older are accident prone and slow to learn and are rapidly declining physically. Is it fair to make such assumptions? Well, according to statistics of the World Health Organization, in the whole European region, “one in every three road traffic deaths involves people younger than 25 years of age.” Furthermore, the most rapid rate of physical decline happens between ages 30 and 40, and there is no evidence that a healthy person’s intellectual ability decreases with age.
What about the assumption that older people are necessarily sick? “A common myth is that ageing and disease are synonymous,” says The Medical Journal of Australia. The fact is, many older ones are enjoying a reasonable measure of health and don’t consider themselves old. Some feel as did the American statesman Bernard Baruch, who said: “To me old age is always fifteen years older than I am.”
Why, then, do older people often suffer discrimination and, at times, even outright prejudice? The answer revolves to a large extent around attitudes toward aging.
Attitudes Toward Old Age
“Americans are drunk on youth and have warped the media’s view of the old,” claims Max Frankel in The New York Times Magazine. “Old-timers have been virtually banished from the media business,” he laments. This may help explain a modern paradox observed by The UNESCO Courier: “Never . . . has a society done so much for its oldest members. They benefit from economic and social protection, but the image society has of them is deeply negative.”
Even the medical profession is not immune to this prejudice. According to The Medical Journal of Australia: “Many doctors, as well as the general community, believe that for people over 65 years of age it is too late for preventive care. . . . The negative attitude . . . has meant that older people have been excluded from many important studies.”
This same journal asserts: “A negative attitude towards older people, labelling them as ‘geriatric’, can be used as an excuse to provide inferior medical care. Many common, but minor, functional problems such as reduced vision and hearing are overlooked or accepted as a normal part of ageing. . . . A change in attitude towards older people is central to an effective preventive program.”
“Perhaps the time has come to revise upwards the traditional definition of what constitutes old age, at least in developed countries,” recommends the British medical journal The Lancet. Why is this important? The journal explains: “An altered definition might lift the gloom, doom, and dire predictions that are all too often used to bolster prejudices about ‘tidal waves’ of elderly people consuming ‘unfair shares’ of scarce health resources.”
A Gray Tidal Wave
The truth is that the gray wave is already here—and it is not just a wave but a rising tide. “Worldwide, the number of persons aged 65 and over will have increased fourfold between 1955 and 2025, and their percentage of the total population will have doubled,” reports The UNESCO Courier.
The number of aged people in India is already greater than the entire population of France. And it is said that in the United States, 76 million so-called baby boomers—those born in the 18 years following World War II—will retire over the next half century. While this trend toward an aging world population is causing concern for many economists and health-care workers, it is also putting pressure on some of our preconceived ideas about aging.
Rewriting the Script
Some may compare life to a three-act play. Youthful excitement and education are expected to dominate the first act. The responsibilities of raising a family and the relentless pressure of work set the mood of the second act. For the third act, the actors are encouraged to retire to a chair away from the spotlight and wait dispiritedly for the final curtain to fall.
However, for various reasons, including remarkable advances in health care and hygiene during the 20th century, the length of time “actors” now spend offstage during the “third act” has increased by up to 25 years. Many are no longer content to be relegated to idle retirement. The swelling ranks of these active older ones are starting to demand that the script be rewritten.
A Huge Contribution
The widely held notion that most older people are dependent on others is simply not true. The New York Times Magazine reported that in the United States, “the majority of the old are self-sufficient, middle-class consumers with more assets than young couples . . . and [that] sociologists discern the emergence of a potent cohort of . . . well-off older people.” Philip Kotler, professor of marketing at Northwestern University in the United States, commented in this regard. “Marketers,” he said, “will soon consider the juiciest demographic target to be affluent consumers aged 55 and up.”
The contribution made by active older people goes well beyond monetary influence. The Sunday Telegraph of Sydney noted that in Australia “grandmothers now provide half of all informal work-related child care, with more than a third of employed women having a grandmother look after their children when at work.”
In such places as the French city of Troyes, the accumulated wisdom of the elderly is considered a valuable resource. This wisdom is being tapped when older ones are used outside school hours to teach children such skills as carpentry, glassmaking, stonecutting, construction, and plumbing. In addition to teaching, older ones are also going to school in great numbers to acquire various skills.
According to The UNESCO Courier of January 1999, “the Paris-based International Association of Universities of the Third Age” says that “there are more than 1,700 senior citizens’ universities worldwide.” Regarding these universities, the journal reports: “Although their structures and management methods differ widely from one country to another, universities for the elderly usually share a desire to help older people play a full part in cultural and social life.” One such institution in Japan was reported to have 2,500 students!
“The net contribution of older persons to their families and communities is vast, albeit difficult to quantify since much of it is unremunerated,” says Alexandre Kalache, group leader of the World Health Organization’s Ageing and Health Programme. He claims: “Countries . . . should see their ageing populations not as a problem but as a potential solution to problems . . . , first and foremost as a resource to be used.”
Undeniably, our ability to enjoy our advancing years can be influenced by the perceptions and prejudices of others, but to a large extent, it is also determined by our own attitude toward life. What can you personally do to keep active, both mentally and physically, even if your body is growing older? Please read the box on pages 12 and 13, and note what some older ones say is their secret to staying active and enjoying life.
Strive to Maintain an Active Life
You will observe that a common characteristic of these active older ones is their maintenance of a meaningful work schedule—either for secular work or as volunteer workers. They also exercise regularly, keep an active interest in people of all age groups, and satisfy their fundamental spiritual needs. As you may notice, these secrets to a happy, active life will benefit young and old alike.
At present, the uncomfortable truth is that even as you read this article, you too are growing older. (Ecclesiastes 12:1) Wisely, though, you will pay heed to the summation in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization: “Just as health sustains activity, it is an active life that stands the best chance of being a healthy one.”
[Box/Pictures on page 12, 13]
They Stay Active and Enjoy Life
▪ SOUTH AFRICA: Piet Wentzel, 77, is a full-time volunteer worker.
“I realize that to remain physically fit, regular exercise is important. For the past number of years, I have tended a small personal garden. I feel like a different person after such exercise. To get the most done, I have tried to be motivated by the principle, ‘Indecision is the thief of time; procrastination is its chief accomplice.’”
“I appreciate the importance of regular exercise.”—Piet
▪ JAPAN: Yoshiharu Shiozaki, 73, works as a real- estate consultant.
“I have lumbago, high blood pressure, and Meniere’s disease. I use a bicycle to commute from my home to the office four days a week; the round trip is seven miles [12 km]. This is good exercise for me, as it doesn’t cause stress to my back yet strengthens the muscles of my legs. I endeavor to maintain peace with others, including neighbors. I try not to look for others’ faults and mistakes. I have come to realize that people respond more quickly when encouraged than they do when criticized.”
“I try not to look for others’ faults.”—Yoshiharu
▪ FRANCE: Léone Chalony, 84, is a full-time evangelizer.
“When I retired in 1982, it was hard because I loved my work as a hairdresser. I had no obligations, so I became a pioneer, as full-time evangelizers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called. Having many Bible studies with interested people has helped me to stay mentally active. I don’t have a car, so I walk a lot. That keeps me healthy.”
“Having many Bible studies keeps me mentally active.”—Léone
▪ BRAZIL: Francisco Lapastina, 78, is a full-time volunteer worker.
“I do not usually get offended when someone hurts or ignores me. I assume that the person may be suffering pressures and problems. All of us have days when we are not very sociable. I try not to hold a grudge and to keep in mind that people have to put up with me. This has helped me to make many true friends.”
“I try not to hold a grudge.”—Francisco
▪ AUSTRALIA: Don MacLean, 77, still works a 40-hour week.
“Four years after bypass surgery on my heart, I continue to have excellent health. I did not view this operation as a permanently disabling chapter in my life. I continue to go for walks each day, as I have been doing for years. When I was young and observed others getting old before their time, I always resolved not to allow myself to adopt that frame of mind. I find real pleasure in getting to know people and promoting conversation. If we have a spiritual dimension to our lives, then we will experience what is described at Psalm 103:5: ‘[Jehovah] is satisfying your lifetime with what is good; your youth keeps renewing itself just like that of an eagle.’”
“Don’t get old before your time.”—Don
▪ JAPAN: Chiyoko Chonan, 68, is a full-time evangelizer.
“The key to maintaining good health is to avoid building up stress and getting exhausted. I try not to take things too seriously and find that having a change of pace from time to time helps me. Recently I started learning the abacus to exercise my fingers and my mind. I think it is good to start new things.”
“I think it is good to start new things.”—Chiyoko
▪ FRANCE: Joseph Kerdudo, 73, is a full-time volunteer worker.
“An important way to age gracefully is to stay active as long as possible. Working leads to satisfaction, and you need to keep an eye on your diet and make necessary adjustments. I think that when life has a purpose, it makes you different. I think that spirituality is very important in helping us stay in good health. Before I became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was very indecisive and pessimistic. Knowing Bible truths is an extraordinary force that gives a person mental strength to cope with different situations.”
“Spirituality is very important.”—Joseph