The World Health Organization predicts that the over-60 population will almost double by the year 2050. The WHO tells us that most problems of aging result from the accumulation of cellular and molecular damage throughout the years. In addition, major life transitions occur as we age, transitions such as retirement, or the loss of a spouse or other loved ones. This can, of course, result in psychological damage, and resulting physical effects. No one has ever said that aging is easy. Some of the most damaging problems of old age are not entirely life-threatening but are debilitating. We suffer from arthritis, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary problems, and perhaps cognitive disorders. At such a time, we may certainly become more dependent on those around us to provide us with care and support, and we can offer a lifetime of acquired knowledge and experience in exchange.
To be quite honest, most of us do not like the idea of aging. We may fight to hold onto our youth well past its expiration date. But, try as we might, the day will inevitably come when we become what we may have dreaded our entire lives, a “senior citizen.” But how easy the transition is may well depend on our location as well as our mental attitude because societal norms vary around the world. Geography may have as much to do with geriatric contentment as physical health.
Perhaps the first thing to discuss is precisely when old age begins. In the United States, it is generally accepted that anyone over the age of sixty-five has achieved senior citizen status. In some undeveloped regions, people are considered old when they have managed to survive for fifty years. The United Nations, which celebrates an International Day of Older People each October, has set the definition of elderly at sixty years of age. But, just as the threshold varies, so does the attitude vary. Some societies revere and respect their elderly members, while others may consider them senile and incompetent, making them the butt of jokes. Some consider it a privilege to care for their elderly citizens, while others consider them nothing more than a burden on society.
Many cultures influenced by the teaching of Confucius, such as China, Japan, and Korea, are among those which treat their elderly members with great respect. In these countries, approximately three-quarters of the aging population live with their adult children. China actually has an elderly rights Law that requires adult children to visit aging parents on a regular basis, with no allowances made for distance or inconvenience. Non-compliance can lead to fines and even jail time. But such an attitude is not strictly limited to the Orient. In fact, Article 207 of the French Civil Code, passed in 2004, requires adult children to keep in regular contact with aging parents. This law was passed in response to a catastrophic heat wave responsible for the deaths of 15,000 people, most of them elderly. In India, it has long been the custom for newlyweds to move into the home of the groom’s parents, leading to multi-generational living. In order to ensure that their aging population is well cared for, India and Nepal have instituted a system of state-run elderly care facilities.
The languages of these countries, and others, often reflects their deep-seated respect for their aging members. In India, the suffix “ji” is often added to a name to reflect this. For example, “Gandhi” becomes “Gandhiji.” Similarly, some people of Africa, speaking in Kiswahili, add the suffix “mzee”. In Hawaii, a kapuna is an elder greatly respected for his experience and expertise. In Japan, seniors are often acknowledged with the honorific “san” added to their name, and their sixtieth birthday is a huge event, a rite of passage into old age known as “kankrai.” Japan often celebrates a “Respect for the Elderly Day”, profiling senior citizens and celebrating their longevity.
In some of the more bizarre customs around the world, certain foods are consumed only by those who have achieved elder status. The Omaha Indians of Nebraska deem it unsuitable for anyone other than their elders to consume bone marrow. The Arunta Aborigines, living around Ayers Rock in Australia, believes that certain foods are suitable for consumption only by their respected elders. Parrots eaten by younger members of the tribe will cause a hole in the chin, and kangaroo tail will cause a young woman to age prematurely. So the elders are free to consume such delicacies with impunity. Lucky them! And, beyond what we would consider normal knowledge gained through years of experience, some cultures believe that their elder members are magical beings endowed with special gifts. A tribe in Ecuador believes that elderly shaman can transform into jaguars, and cure the sick. But, magical powers or not, people of advancing years are often looked to for leadership and guidance. It is surely no accident that the average age of an American president is 54 years, and that of a Supreme Court Justice is 53 upon assuming office..
But, the elderly are not treated so kindly in all parts of the world, especially among nomadic people or those who live in harsh climates. In these circumstances, the elderly are often considered a burden to be disposed of. In Siberia, among the Chukchi people, voluntary elder suicide is encouraged, with some older people submitting to death at the hands of their near and dear. In other places, older people will merely separate themselves from society, to embark on an impossible journey or voyage, in order to lessen the burden on their families. And, in yet another example of sexual inequality, the Ache people of Paraguay will allow their old men to simply wander off to die while breaking the necks of the female counterparts. In these societies, older citizens have a lot more to complain about than a few aches and pains, eh?
When it comes down to it, no one can accurately predict how long an individual will live. We can, however, give statistical representations of average life expectancy. This figure has steadily increased from Paleolithic man to modern civilizations. Paleo man could expect to live about 33 years, which may seem surprising given that the average life expectancy in classical Rome was only 20 to 30 years. Perhaps those gladiatorial games were even more lethal than we believed. Modern life expectancy worldwide is 71.5 years, but this varies widely. Someone born in Swaziland can expect to live 30 to 40 years, while those born in modern Japan, with access to better nutrition and health care, will live, on average, 82.5 years. And woman, in general, tend to live longer than men. Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, expressed the opinion that “Old age is not a disease –it’s a triumph.” And she was absolutely correct. Once we reach whatever milestone which delineates old age in our culture, we should be able to look back on our life as an achievement, and look forward to contributing even further to the society in which we live. But we cannot all be blessed by living on that magical Greek island of Ikaria, where the population is four times more likely to reach their nineties than anywhere else in the world. But we can emulate their healthy eating habits and a relaxed lifestyle in the hopes of achieving the same goal.
In the end, if we are lucky enough to live in a society that offers excellent health care options, and treats their elder citizenry with the care and respect they have earned, there is no reason to dread the onset of senior citizenship. It has been said that ”Life begins at forty,” but I do not recall any end limit being mentioned. At the very least, we should keep in mind the immortal words of Mark Twain, “Growing old is not so bad when you consider the alternative.”
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