We all think someone else is old until we get there ourselves.
We massage our mind to try to be at ease with the number before looking to name a new distant number as ‘old’.
Is it any wonder though? At least in a large proportion of the West.
We erase the older generation from our lives.
And I don’t mean physically. It’s bigger than that.
It’s a deeply seated attitude where ‘old people’ are socially sandwiched between residential care and dying.
They become less than human.
When was the last time you saw an elderly person involved in a romantic storyline on TV?
When was the last time you saw an elderly couple in a film sex scene?
I can’t remember either.
It’s not because it’s not happening in real life.
In the UK, 54% of men and 31% of women over 70 report still being sexually active with a third stating ‘frequently’.
So, why is it that society pretends it’s not happening? Is it because it makes us (the society that values youth) uncomfortable?
I know that there’s the awkward thought of your parents having sex. I’m sure mine only had it twice…9 months before I was born and the same for my sibling.
Seriously though, in the expat community we often talk about how others box us in, especially with the ‘Where are you really from?’ question. Often, the enquirer doesn’t like our answer because it doesn’t fit their predetermined limitation of one’s identity.
The same applies to the elderly.
We place limitations on what we expect suitable behaviour and identity to be, but in doing so, we impose our own identity and attitudes. Apply it enough and at some point, the social pressure becomes a lived reality.
Last year, there was an incredibly good TV program in Australia called Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds. I think it is my most favourite program ever on TV.
This unique social experiment brought older retirement home residents together with pre-schoolers, to see if their contact and connections could help the residents to lead happier and healthier lives.
The children placed no limitations on residents and the results were remarkable.
It got me thinking.
When we place limitations on others, we also limit ourselves. We assert our own fears. We lower our standards. We close our minds.
I do not think that Josephine Smith felt limited.
Meet Mrs. Josephine Smith, aged 84, whose hobby is digging graves, says the caption to this National Library of Australia photo.
Woah! Stop right there!
84 and digging graves as a hobby?
I think I am in love with that woman.
She certainly does not look like a woman who would take well to being treated as old. She is a prime example of the power of seeing the elderly very much as active members of society.
They have a lot to offer if we allow ourselves to see them. I am not saying that to be seen, they need to be as active as Josephine Smith.
Rather, let us look beyond our own lens of limitation. Wipe your murky glasses to help you see differently. You might find that you do not even need to wear glasses and a new perspective will reveal itself.
The integrity of any society can be judged by how well it treats its youngest and oldest members.– Brian Atuhaire
We have a lot to learn about how other cultures treat their elderly.
Mediterranean and Latin American cultures often all live under the one roof. I remember reading an article years ago that talked about the elderly living longer in cultures where they lived with family. The simple fact was that they were not isolated.
In South Korea, it is an honourable duty to care for one’s parents. In India, the elderly are the head of the household and respected for their wisdom and sage advice to younger family members. In Vietnam, Japan, and China they also live with family as do many other cultures.
So where does leave us?
I look to Josephine Smith.
I’ve made a deal with a friend that we will go running together when we are 75. Who knows if we’ll even reach 75. It might be more of a crawl, but I know one thing for certain.
I’m aiming high and, in the meantime, I’m going to aim high for the elderly in my life.
I might even ask how good they are on the end of a shovel.
Josephine would be proud.