Birthday musings about ageing and mortality

old-man-and-birthday-dog
Old man and dog – photo by Bob Wilson

So I’ve picked a table at the combined 70th birthday party, met the woman next to me and nodded to her husband. It’s an outdoor setting for 40 people with five big tables and much background noise from kitchen activities. We say hello to the hosts, and, according to the way their lips moved, they reply “glad you could make it to our birthday”.

After a while, I set my hearing aids to ‘noisy room’ which basically meant I could talk to the person on my right and She Who Sits on My Left. After the main meal I got up and milled about, having one-on-one discourse with people who tended to lean towards me and say things like “Sorry I missed that?”

The birthday girl made a short but gracious speech without benefit of microphone. We were all lip-reading like billyo.

“It’s good to see you all – and as Keith Richards said, ‘it’s good to see anybody,’ ” she quipped.

The birthday boy also spoke briefly and said that while it was lovely to see us all, he doubted he’d ever see all of us again in the same room. It was just the right sentiment for a 70th, where the guests were either approaching that day or had passed it some years earlier.

Crikey, this is becoming a habit, raising our glasses to people crossing the threshold of seven decades. Who’d have thought?

The conversations ranged around ageing, mortality, health scares, belief systems, technology and Donald Trump. I told someone mortality rarely occurred to me these days though when I turned 40 I’d lie awake observing my heart beat and wondering if and when it would stop. Neurotic, yes, but you knew that.

Comedian, actor and writer George Burns, who died at 100, once said “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” Burns also said that when he was a boy, the Dead Sea was only sick. So he carved out a later-life career making fun of his ability to live into his 90s and still smoke cigars.

Making A Movie About Moses

Some people seem able to reach a great age staying mentally supple. I picked up a book in the library by one Herman Wouk, author of the Caine Mutiny, et al. Turns out this book (The Lawmaker, about a new Moses movie), was written when Wouk was 98. He followed up at 99 with: Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author. He described the latter as “…the story of my life, light-hearted because I’m an inveterate Jewish optimist.” It was released in January 2016 to mark his 100th birthday. Wouk married Betty Sarah Brown in 1945. Betty, who was also his literary agent, died in 2011, aged 90.

I felt a surge of guilt about my long-neglected habit of keeping a daily journal when I read that Wouk has been doing this since 1932. What a trove for historians.

Like Wouk, George Burns advocated staving off old age by continuing to work.

“Age to me means nothing. I can’t get old, I’m working,” he said. “I was old when I was twenty-one and out of work. As long as you’re working, you stay young.”

Yeh, maybe, but Burns also said the key to longevity is to avoid stress and tension. Just how you do that and keep working is a secret many of us have never learned.

So we of the nearly-70 brigade return to our routines, tucked away in our semi-rural house, fans set on high, watching Breaking Bad and waiting for the next invitation to an event that isn’t a funeral. No wonder so many older Australians buy a road rig, preferably with the bumper sticker ‘adventure before dementia’, and traverse this big red continent.

In our society, siblings resolve between them the decision about caring for elderly parents. Some take care of their parents in their own homes, or under the one roof. Others hand-ball the folks to a retirement village, preferably one with an associated nursing home.

The onset of dementia usually accelerates the decision to admit Mum and/or Dad to an aged care facility. It’s not easy caring for people with dementia and it can only get worse.

In some societies, this outplacement of old folk is not culturally acceptable. Seniors, demented or not, are the respected elders of the tribe and take their rightful place at the head of the table.

Global Agewatch maintains an index which measures income security, health, personal capability and whether elders live in an “enabling environment”. Indicators include life expectancy, coverage by pension plans, access to public transit and the poverty rate for people over 60.

Switzerland is the best place to be if you are past 65 and wondering what comes next. Norway and Sweden are 2 and 3 in this important global index, which is to be updated in 2018.

Australia is ranked 17th, below countries including Canada, the UK and New Zealand. Australia ranks highly in some domains (health, social connectivity) but it ranks lowest in its region in the income security domain (62), due to high old age poverty rate (33.4%) and pension income coverage (83%) below the regional average.

So yes, some societies revere the elderly and there is never any question about one’s parents being moved to a retirement village or aged care facility. In China and Japan there is the Confucian code of filial piety, in essence a system of selfless subordinate relationships. An article by Mayumi Hayashi, however, considers the myths surrounding family care, filial piety and how these systems can break down in urban Japan.

Hayashi says the limits of family care were recognised by successive governments in the 1960s. But public residential care was restricted to people lacking financial means and family support. Other problems with Japan’s system include family ‘care’ that involves neglect and abuse. From the 1970s, large numbers of ‘abandoned’ older people became resident in hospitals, often with little need of medical care. This ‘social hospitalisation’ remains stigmatised, says Hayashi, and an option of last resort, like Obasuteyama.

The latter is a Japanese custom of the distant past where frail aged relatives (usually women), were allegedly taken to remote mountain areas and left to their fate. The practice was said to be most common during times of drought and famine. It was also sometimes mandated by feudal officials (although Wikipedia notes a citation is needed to verify this).

Myths persist of similar practices among other societies – for example the Inuit, placing their frail old ones on ice flows and letting them drift off to a certain death.

The notion of a loving son or daughter propping their old Da up against a tree in his favourite part of the forest has (for me) some appeal. The alternative, 24/7 care in an aged care facility, has none. The denouement is the same.

More reading:

Founder and former chairman of National Seniors Australia Everald Compton, now in his 80s, continues to campaign for seniors.

Kathryn Johnston’s blog Scattered Straws has lately has been focussing on the (financial) plight of the Naked Retiree.

 

1 thought on “Birthday musings about ageing and mortality”

Comments are closed.