Thoughts & Things

The old man and the world

November 15, 2019

 “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”  Few other lines prompted man to surge ahead in life in the midst of all his shattered dreams and hopes. But for the heroic efforts of an old man in the sea, immortalised by Ernest Hemingway, we would have missed this iconic sentence written for the entire struggling humanity. After invoking struggles of one of the most memorable old man ever created by imagination we can perhaps move towards a few thoughts on the struggles of the old man in the world.   

A world getting aged  

We are living in an age where a majority of the human population has the possibility to live long and die old as compared to say, a century ago. Of course, there are exceptions. But if you are born in a fortunate part of this planet you are most likely to move to your 80s or 90s or beyond. Things in nature work well when it follows a balance and population is not different either.  In many developed countries, we have the particular problem of a gradual decrease in birth rate and a consequent increase in the proportion of the old.  Many countries are in the demographic winter and are staring at the reality of taking care of the huge number of aged population by relatively fewer number of young people. On the other hand, there is positive population growth in many countries especially in Asia ( with Japan being a major exception) and Africa. However even there too, thanks to the medical advances, we have a  growing number of old people. Radical demographic shifts are happening in many parts of the world. The proportion of the aged population is swelling everywhere.  How do we plan to address this? What the aged want? Do we understand their anxieties? These are important questions as every one of us will become old one day.

Negotiating the old age

Human-animal is a peculiar species as it is heavily dependent on others in its early as well as in late years. In this aspect of our biology, we are one of the most delicate of all species on earth. Historically, human species knew that unless its young ones are cared for, the species is doomed.  So a system of elaborate childcare evolved across various cultures.  One can trace the roots of family also from this need for childcare as caring the young by one parent alone was a challenging task as compared to other animals. However, caring the aged was a minor task for millions of years as not many lived to see their old age.  However, the situation is different now with a burgeoning old population.  As we advanced as a civilisation, caring the aged became a noble duty and in a way, the attitude towards the weakest and most vulnerable determine the greatness of any culture.

            For most people, old age is not a very pleasant phase to look forward to.  We frantically try to postpone it at least in appearance. Giacomo Leopardi, a 19th-century Italian Philosopher and poet wrote,

“  Old age is the supreme evil, because it deprives us of all pleasures, leaving us only the appetite for them, and it brings with it all sufferings.

For a  lot of old people, old age means an end to their earning capacity and for those without retirement benefits or caring children, daily survival itself is a real crisis. As we all know, old age is a time of ailments and sufferings too for the majority. Apart from that , imagine the extreme loneliness many are subjected to and the simple task of living itself becomes a trauma for them.  As people live longer ,  we also encounter the situation where  people have  long years to spend after their retirement . 

What the old want

Sometimes the most important need for the elderly is a pair of ears to pour out their feelings as loneliness is the most excruciating thing for many. I know a woman who is aged and living alone.  When we go to meet her, her greatest satisfaction is that she got someone to talk to and we allow her to do that to her full satisfaction. In fact, this idea of talking to elders is an activity which besides benefitting the elderly, becomes a very useful exchange for the young too. An elder has seen life and is in a position to tell us all about it with a sense of detachment which comes from a long life. That wisdom may turn out to be more valuable than anything else.  Karl Pillemer is a  professor of Gerontology at Cornell University. Look at what he tells young people who are unable to take a crucial decision in life.

“interview an older person who embodies the ‘self’ you would like to be“.

He continues, “ Debating a career in medicine? Find a doctor who loved what she did. Worried about whether you can balance your values with a career in the financial services industry? Find an older person who struck that balance and made it to the end of life without regrets.” And so on and on.  Here the point is, we must do what the human race has always done. Asking the elder person what to do as they have gone where we have not.  Every nation has to tap this resource at its disposal besides exploring fresh ideas.

            Coming to the many ways countries and  other agencies have to gear up for caring the aged,  I have a feeling that at least in some sectors where the physical abilities do not matter much, the elderly should be allowed to work if they choose to, as a knowledgeable professional at 60 or 65   could be a great asset  to any organisation . It is also important that we create opportunities for the elderly to be engaged creatively even after retirement. They will find greater fulfilment when they can contribute something to society without worrying about working hours and targets.

Our relationship with the aged is based on the simple principle that all those born are bound to die after passing through old age. How much ever we wish for youth and persevere to retain it, we will hit that phase one day. The option before human beings is to make both aging as well as caring the aged a graceful affair.  If caring for the young is an obligation once we bring them to earth, caring the aged is repaying our debt towards them. Well lived lives comprise of its obligations as well as clearing it’s debts. When we are healthy adults we will feel we are invincible and we own this earth.  But our days of vulnerability are perhaps nearer than we think. Everything becomes bearable when we have a pair of shoulders to bank upon. It’s up to us to offer that to the aged around us now.  When we do that, the aged will never be wholly deprived of all pleasures. That’s something beautiful, right?  

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