Never will I ask an August sky: “Where has last July gone?”Oscar Hammerstein ll (from Oklahoma)
People are living longer all over the world. Even those with the least life expectancy (men in sub-Saharan Africa) are clocking up more years than their European and North American counterparts of 100 years ago. But now the baby-boomers of the late ’40s – the teenagers of the swinging ’60s – are somewhat ambivalent about reaching their own 70s, depresses, perhaps, by the dismissive attitude of younger generations.
Surveys from various parts of the world indicate that many older people feel that they are not respected, not valued nor even considered. Ageism is rampant when it comes to jobs. This is particularly true in South Africa, where youth unemployment is at an all-time high and “job creation” seems little more than a political red herring. Being forced to retire to make way for someone younger can easily generate a feeling of uselessness, that one’s life is no longer of any value.
Balderdash! Growing older may be the inevitable result of being alive, but it does not make one any less alive. You don’t have to accept the ‘old and decrepit’ label that youngsters want to pin on you. Consider age as a badge to be worn with pride. Don’t waste your precious energy fighting ageing; come to terms with it, embrace it and your life will not only be happier but also – experts say – longer and healthier.
The ‘power of positive thinking’ has an important part to play throughout our lives and never more so than in our ‘autumn ‘years. Just as the ‘placebo effect’ proves the mind’s ability to bring about healing, so harbouring negative thoughts can supress the body’s natural ability to heal itself. And stressing about Alzheimer’s disease might easily be what brings it on.
It’s easy to say: “Stop worrying, start living!” So what is it that stops us from doing it?
The industrial revolution changed more than just the way things were manufactured. The technology of the late 18th and early 19th century brought with it a change in the economics of the then developing countries; industrialisation brought urbanisation – as it did later in Africa – and society changed with it. The old human values gave way to a money-based line of thought and production became king. Society became obsessed with productivity – with the ability of the young to achieve a high level of material output – and the ability of older generations to provide a background of experience, wisdom and emotional stability was largely cast aside.
Not only were the elderly considered useless by succeeding generations – they began to believe it themselves.
And nothing has changed. If anything, the situation has got worse. With young people being pushed by peer pressure to aim for higher and higher goals – goals defined by their own perception of what is desirable – the ability of age to adapt and appreciate what is real and present is largely ignored.
Another by-product of the industrial revolution was the idea of equating the human body to a machine – something that works for a certain number of revs and then wears out. That was, of course, before the discovery that the body does, in fact, renew itself at a cellular level as time goes on and that the brain has an almost infinite capacity to generate new paths and by-pass those that have become blocked. Somehow equating ageing with degeneration is an idea that persisted to this day, despite the fact that our bodies continue to refresh themselves for as long as they live.
Death is, of course, inevitable, an inescapable result of living, which has received such bad press from the judgmental religions over the millennia that modern society finds it hard to view it as a natural transition from one state of being to the next. It has become a phenomenon to be feared and – as far as possible – ignored. The presence of elderly people is often upsetting to the young. It reminds them of their own mortality and they would prefer to banish such reminders to old age homes, safely out of sight. Such rejection cannot but affect the elderly, causing them to become withdrawn and reclusive, often fearing, not advancing age itself, but the danger of becoming a burden to other people.
By acknowledging death as a natural state of being, we become more appreciative of life as we lad it in the present, better able to enjoy the moment and use every opportunity available to us.
We may not be able to change society’s attitude to ageing but we can reject it in our own minds and not allow it to sour our own lives. We can refuse to fade away but take a deliberate step forward to contribute our experience, understanding and acquired wisdom to the very society that chooses to ignore us.
In a competitive society, the yardstick of ‘success’ is a place on the winners’ podium. Few achieve it and they are almost all young. But consider the role of the support staff, the coaches and mentors, the ‘road sweepers’ of the path of life and take joy in the contribution your wisdom, kindness and experience can make to those around you.
Start each day with a purpose: Not a great, unattainable or even necessarily physical goal, but something to stretch your abilities a little, to take a little bit of effort; something to express your gratitude or spread a little kindness. Have a quiet chuckle at those who make fools of themselves by persisting in aiming for the podium, Competition is a man-made device. Nature has different standards of success and no concept of failure. Find your niche and fill it – that will be your success.
It may be true that we learn more easily before the age of six years, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep learning, albeit more slowly, even at 96. Research shows that people who continue to learn, to embrace new ideas, live longer, healthier lives than those who choose to take ‘retirement’ literally.
Curiosity may have “killed the cat” but it never did an ageing brain any harm at all!
One of the major factors in achieving longevity seems to be remaining an active member of a community. Being able to contribute to the lives of others is a powerful raison d’etre in any language.
Accept death as the next level of being. Make the most of the gift of life and continue to look forward. Don’t give up on life and the chances are that you will defer the date when life gives up on you.