How many of us remember that old folk song, possibly learned in kindergarten, “The Old Gray Mare.” Well, in the twenty-first century it couldn’t possibly be more true. The old gray mare certainly ain’t what she used to be.
Think about it. How many of us remember our grandparents’, or, in some cases, even our great-grandparents, as vibrant human beings. We may often think that grandma’s major contribution was a fresh batch of cookies in the oven. And grandpa wove a marvelous tale as he rocked in his chair on the porch. While such images may be comforting, in their way, is that really the way we picture our own future to play out? Odds are, the answer is a resounding. “No!” And we can be encouraged by the fact that our own old age is shaping up to much more comfortable, productive, and rewarding than that of our immediate, and certainly remote ancestors.
It’s hard to define, exactly, when old age begins. There seems to be no hard and fast rules. The United States has decided that retirement currently begins at age 66, up from the original 65 years, but still being increased to 67 in the near future. Western Europe holds quite closely to this standard. But look at the statistics behind this judgement. When Social Security was first established, sixty-five was a far more significant age. Only about five percent of the population had lived to attain that age, and their life expectancy was only about five more years. That was in 1936. By 2011, that same age group could be reasonably predicted to live for another ten to twenty years. Life expectancy has increased progressively during the last century. In 1900, only four percent of the population was over sixty-five. By 2000, the percentage had tripled to twelve percent. As techniques in healthcare advance, that percentage is expected to increase to seventeen percent by 2020. Our aging population is increasing dramatically, and their quality of life seems to be increasing just as dramatically.
There seems to be no general consensus about when old age actually begins. The United Nations has generally denoted old age as beginning at sixty-five, in agreement with most countries in the developed world. But the World Health Organization has established age 55 as the beginning of old age in Africa. So, as you can see, it all depends on the culture in which you exist. Old age is relative. But science has identified many factors which may define our old age, and none of these are calendar related.
One factor denoting old age is a slowness of behavior. We all know that we tend to slow down, both mentally and physically, as we age, so this comes as no surprise. But there are other, more precise, indicators of old age. Our bones and joints begin to deteriorate. We are susceptible to chronic diseases such as arthritis, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Forty percent of us have some form of digestive disorder, such as difficulty swallowing, the inability to eat or absorb nutrients, constipation, or bleeding. Our eyesight begins to fail, and our hearing may, also. Our food won’t taste as good, and we may not even know when we’re thirsty! Our hair will turn gray, or fall out entirely. Our sex drives may diminish, but never entirely go away. Our once strong and confident voice will weaken and grow wispy. But none of this need happen for quite some time. The rise of an aging population has brought a demand for better health care, and the medical community has responded. Treatments for the disabilities, conditions, diseases, and even the inconveniences of the elderly are advancing dramatically. The heart disease which may have prematurely ended our grandparents lives is now treated and/or controlled by modern surgical techniques or drug therapy. New treatments for diabetes, one of the scourges of old age, are on the horizon, or already available. Hypertensive? Take a pill! Arthritis pain? Drugs, therapy, or injections can ease the pain and increase your mobility. Worried about that gray? Wash it away! And, in case you haven’t heard, bald is beautiful. There is no longer any reason to dread the coming of old age. We are not our grandparents, and we have a lot more to look forward to than that new cookie recipe, or that rocking chair on the porch.
But aside from the advances which make the physical side of aging much more palatable, we should look at the cultural side of the process as well. This era is often criticized for being far too “youth oriented,” with a concomitant disdain for those of advanced years. In his study, “Aging and Old Age.” Richard A. Posner cites a resentment and disdain for old people in America. And this may be true. But this is no different from the days of yore, and, in fact, the situation is not nearly as dire as it was for past generations. There has long existed the myth that older members of society were taken care of and even venerated by the societies to which they belonged, but this is far from the truth. Individuals, due to characteristics unrelated to their age, may have been respected, but the mere attainment of an advanced age earned them nothing but disregard. Aristotle, in “Ethics,” called the elderly “miserly” and accused them of acting only in their own self-interest. Thomas More, in his definitive work “Utopia”, encouraged the debilitated elderly to end their own lives rather than be a drain on society. Olympian Greeks certainly had no use for their older citizens, often driving them off or killing them outright. Eskimos used to leave their non-productive elderly for the polar bears. There never seems to have been a golden age for the elderly. But perhaps that is changing now. We are living longer, healthier lives, and are proving far more productive and involved well into our twilight years than ever before.
In the sixteenth century, William Shakespeare, in his play “As You Like It,” described the seven ages of man. The sixth of these is old age, which is described primarily as a transition from the wisdom and influence of our middle years to the futility of our second childhood. He mentions failing eyesight and speech. This whole period is portrayed as nothing more than a long slide into oblivion, and this is the way it must have been viewed during that time period. How differently would the Bard of Avon describe an elderly person of the twenty-first century, and how differently would that person expect to be treated? Certainly not as a detriment to society, to be ignored, marginalized, or pitied, but as a still vibrant human being and self-determining member of society. Times have certainly changed.