When does old age begin?

I turned 64 yesterday, and was musing on what old age is, and when it begins.

Certainly, as I grew up, the horizons of old age shifted. In my childhood, 60 was an unimaginable old age, and life expectancy being what was in India then, a man who turned 60 would have a big ceremony to mark the occasion.

When I first started travelling abroad, I was much struck by the fact that people in the “developed” countries of the west…and many people in eastern countries…seemed to be hale and healthy at what I considered an advanced age. The trains I took in Switzerland were full of 80 year olds, having a good time as they enjoyed the relaxation of a life after work and career.

Of my immediate family, my parents both died at 66, and my mother in law at 59. None of my parents’ siblings made it beyond 70. My father-in-law an inveterate walker and cyclist, lived up to 87, but it was dependent and sick old age for the last few years, after a series of strokes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s took their toll on his physical and mental health.

In spite of all that, the increase in the average life expectancy began to reflect in many other extended family members and friends. As I grew old, 50 became the new 40, and now, 60 took up the same position too. I have friends’ parents who are in their eighties, living independently and enjoying reasonably good health.

One of the most unusual example of old age I have seen was my WASP son-in-law’s paternal grandfather. With the help of two consecutive pacemakers, he made it to an independent 101. And then he did something which I have not seen anyone else do…he took charge of his destiny and After a few episodes of congestive heart failure, decided he’d had a full life. He asked his pacemaker to be switched off, and passed away the next day after that.The only parallel I know for this was the story of Bhishma in the Mahabharata, who had the boon of “icchA maraNam” (death at one’s own will) and exercised that will when he decided that his life’s work of protecting the kingdom was over.

Today, I am surrounded by so many people of my age, or older, and what I notice is the importance of good health in their happiness. Independence of life, and good health, are the essential parameters, I find, of a good quality of life in one’s sixties, and beyond.

But an intangible which I think very important …is…the ability to also get along with people younger….and much younger….than one. I can truly say that I don’t seem to consider someone’s age in interacting with them; I have very close friends who are 20 years older than I am, and 30 years younger. I am so lucky in being able to enjoy the company of children so much that I find the thought of a senior citizen’s home, where there may not be many children, not appealing at all….yet!

Another intangible is the attitude we bring to age. Far too often do I see people who are young, thinking of anyone beyond a certain age, to be “old”. Also, many of the people I see, of my own age, seem to think they are “old”, and begin moaning and groaning about their small ailments. At 50, a friend told me,”Our lives are over, now we have to live for our children!” I disagree. I love my child, but I can’t live only for her! In fact, perhaps my keeping up my own interests and activities, and the fact of my having friends of all ages, has kept me healthy…I am not so sure of this, though!

This is because good health, unfortunately, is not always the guaranteed result of regular habits and a disciplined life. Illness and disease come out of nowhere and strike hard, making a mockery (mocking a makery?) of one’s will to be independent. Dependent, and sickly, old age, is a daily torture. The ageless personality in the suffering body chafes at the restrictions that hedge and control life.

So what is the point of all this musing? Er, nothing…it’s just musing…meandering, and possibly a sign of old age. Three sure signs of mental “old age”, according to me, are….1. A perpetual harking back to the good old days, and a feeling that the quality of life has gone down in all ways; mores and values have deteriorated. 2. What a wit called anec-dotage…the tendency to live in that now-glowing past, and recount endless stories of one’s prime.

And 3…the tendency, in the age of the internet, to keep on forwarding stuff! When I start sending you forwards (instead of sharing my own thoughts) regularly, can you come and snuff me out,please? Thank you!

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