Bartholomew A Ochia
109 Hamilton Place, Aberdeen, AB15 5BD, Scotland
We, as mortals, are subjected to biological ageing which is measured in terms of our previous lifestyles, and the effects of these lifestyles on the cellular processes which have occurred in our bodies. This biological ageing expresses itself in such changes as slow decline in eye-focusing power, loss of high-register hearing, much reduced power to recuperate from various illnesses, and the greying of hair.
Factors which influence human biological ageing have been vigorously studied by scientists. These include genetic make-up; loss of cell function due to accumulation of waste substances in the cell; mechanical fatigue in tissues and organs; changes in, and inactivation of, growing and dividing cells; insidious reversal in the defensive role of the body immune system; and structural alterations and immobilisation of collagen molecules induced by free radicals. The mechanisms that determine genetic and non-genetic factors which influence biological ageing are now being unravelled, and it is a matter of time before mankind will be able to slow down, or even reverse, the rate of biological ageing, and thereby eliminate all the ageing-related physiological debilities.
Now, biological ageing taken aside, there is another conception of human ageing which makes the idea of being old unbearable in most developed societies. This is derived from ‘sociogenic ageing’ which, in a nutshell, means the part which society imposes upon people as they attain a certain chronological age. At this age, society expects them to be incompetent, impoverished, inflexible, wedded to the past, de-sexed, sick, uncreative and gainfully unemployable; in other words, useless and disposable.
The two words which are particularly important in most societies are ‘young’ and ‘old’. The word old carries many negative connotations, because as they age people are expected to accumulate more problems and grievances. Even Shakespeare described old age as “second childishness and oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”. No wonder why people glorify youth, since it comes long before the troubles begin.
Words have the awesome power to delineate our awareness of our body systems. A person at forty receives a birthday greetings card from a friend which reads: ” You are forty today. I’m afraid from now on life will start to be dull.” Although this black humour might make some people giggle, it also exposes some of the anxieties which could be overwhelming if fully confronted. What the birthday message really exposes is our deep resentment of growing old, compounded by our inability to do anything about it.
According to Ken Dychtwald in Age and Wave the implications of polarising old and young could be that if young is good, beautiful, exciting and great, then old must be bad, ugly, boring and dull, respectively; if children are our tomorrow, then old people are our yesterday. So, the idea of getting old is perceived with trepidation.
In the United States and many western countries some people react to the young-old polarisation by pretending or wishing to be, or even aiming at being, forever young. Advertisements go to depict the country as a paradise populated by young men and women below thirty years old, even though data collected in America in 1983 suggested that people over sixty-five years old made up a greater part of the population, compared to teenagers. The emphasis is always on youth; old persons rarely serve as models in advertisements except, of course, those beamed at pensioners. At parties it is considered unbecoming to ask people, especially women, how old they are. But when one dares to ask, he/she is either met by stone silence or given a figure slightly weighted downwards. No one is comfortable with being referred to as old. The sad fact, according to Chopra, is that society has loaded the very word with layers of prejudice. And that is the rub.
In a modern society ageing connotes increasing disorder and frailty, although in truth disorder is the result of imbalance in our body chemistry; and this can occur at any age. Ageing is a lifelong process. We are definitely not born old. Old people are just normal persons who have been around for a longer time than we. You are the same person whether you are old or young, save that you accumulate experience as you age. Physical appearance changes with age, in all ages. Sociogenic ageing is effective in shaping our views about ageing. We are indoctrinated by societal prejudices long before those prejudices stare us in the face. For instance, how many twenty-year old individuals realize that healthy old people have normal intelligence, and that sexual ability is life-long? Basically none, I guess. As a result of this misconception, the young simply, to use the words of Alex Comfort, “drown themselves as individuals when they approach the relevant old age”.
Unless we are already old, the next people in line to be considered as old will be we. It, therefore, stands to reason that if we do not want ourselves to be treated in the same way as old persons are treated now, we should very seriously consider initiating appropriate measures to bring about changes in societal misconceptions and attitudes towards the elderly.
Concentrating on the positive aspects of ageing could be a welcome start. Despite our fears that the ageing brain could be senile, a vast majority of old people retain their faculties intact well into advanced ages, and many individuals have achieved their creative potentials in extreme old ages. Hokusai, the talented Japanese woodwork artist, predicted that at 80 he would have considerable talent, and at 100 he would be sublime. Hokusai died in 1849 aged 90, still believing that his best artwork was still to come. George Bernard Shaw wrote and produced his last play in his late 80s, and he continued to produce until his death at 94. Golder Meir became the Prime Minister of Israel at 74 and presided over two Middle East wars. Similarly, Moraji Desai became the Prime Minister of India at the age of 80. The musician Mieczyslaw Korszowski performed in 1922 in Carnegie Hall on his 100th birthday. In doing so he was following the tradition of illustrious musical masters, including such luminaries as Toscanini, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Serki and Giuseppe Verdi. Although creative genius is identified with child prodigies as Mozart, the findings from creativity studies indicate that careers that began late in life are often those that endue longest.
In the annals of history, and in many cultures, an old person is a useful asset to the community. Here is a woman who had successfully raised ten children and helped to deliver hundreds, understands the problems of difficult labour, and knows what to do in such a situation. There is an old blacksmith vastly knowledgeable in the making of traditional farm tools, and who is consulted by young blacksmiths to assist in solving their itching technical problems. And, finally, there is the fisherman now retired but whom the villagers, nevertheless, approach when fishing becomes difficult. Such people are held in deep respect, and any infirmity affecting them is viewed by the entire community as unfortunate, since it limits their effectiveness in the community.
It is pertinent not to forget that in modern society highest rates of crime, brigandage, terrorist outrage, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, schizophrenia and social unrest occur among the young, not among the old. And yet, youth is the symbolic ideal to which almost all respond to warmly and positively.
The changes needed to remedy the debasing views of sociogenic ageing and to assist in evoking the full physical and intellectual power which we as individuals possess throughout life are changes in attitude. An old person could be seen not as old first and, provisionally, as a person second. He/she should be taken as a normal person who happens also to be old, and who is still as he/she always was, plus experience but minus the results of physical changes brought about by time. We ought to remember the poetic saying that time which wounds all heels also heals all wounds. One can only hope that these changes in attitude will materialise and endure.