Birthday musings about ageing and mortality

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.


Old dogs, new tricks

Chunky the bulldog is pictured in the world’s first stair lift for overweight dogs. Photo:

You may have noticed last week how I skilfully bypassed National Seniors’ Week and wrote about the IT/social media stuff that engrosses 30-somethings. Physiotherapists love this ‘old body-teen brain’ syndrome. They get a lot of ongoing business from 70-year-old men falling off ladders while pruning trees with chainsaws, or moving a full filing cabinet only to have all four drawers roll out at the same time. But I digress.

For me, the young at heart feeling is quite acute this week as we rehearse for a couple of gigs at a folk festival in our home town. It’s hard to think of yourself as old when you’re wearing jeans and a T-shirt, guitar around your neck, singing songs about love and peace and a dead man’s shirt.
The subject of age came up the weekend before last when staying with rellies at their new abode, which has a flight of polished wooden stairs that lead to a sunken lounge. The problem with the see-through steps is that the 15-year-old poodle can’t do them. He tries: a tentative paw, a quizzical look, a tiny whimper and there he stands, quivering, for however long it takes for someone to take pity and carry him up the stairs.
“You need a Dog Stairlift,” I jested (before looking it up on a search engine and finding that, yes, someone has already thought of that).

Adapting to arthritis and ancientry

What a marvellous idea, and multi-purpose, too. You could adapt this for aged cats, your pet python; banjos, anything small but heavy you don’t want to carry up or down the stairs.
The truly lazy could arrange the sunken lounge just so; the sofa’s here, the remote is there and the lift is within arm’s reach (“Send down another Merlot and some cheese and crackers wouldya?”)
As we age and our bodies start to let us down, we adapt in almost imperceptible ways. We stop using the bottom shelves of the fridge, the oven and the dishwasher, so much less crouching down. Stooping we can do. We put the recycling bin out every fortnight, not waiting until it is so full of empties you can’t drag it anywhere.
Old dogs too are good at adapting, despite what they say. The poodle has worked out how to exit the downstairs back door and run around to the front, whining and pawing the screen door. When we had a German Shepherd and she got old and arthritic we went to a $2 shop and bought a big plastic box we could put on the ground at the rear of the station wagon so she could get in without having to jump, like she used to. Only took her one go to get that right.

I was telling Mr Loophole that I was having trouble getting up from a crouching or kneeling position. Mr L, who does stretching exercises every day of his life, showed me his patented way of becoming upright with the least effort; I parried with the Dru Yoga lever-yourself-off-the-floor-in-a-spiral move.
As my Scots Auntie (90-something) said, last time I was there, prising her old bones off of the sofa: “Ach, this getting auld is’nae for the faint-hearted.”
Or as Billy Connolly says, “You can tell how old someone is by how long it takes them to get out of a beanbag.”

Man, you gettin’ old (P.Simon)

The latest demographic studies confirm what we have suspected for a while, the old and increasingly infirm will soon outnumber the upcoming generation.
As you stand around the water cooler at work, you can use these figures to impress people how much you know about how the world’s population is growing—and aging.
The National Institute on Ageing says very low birth rates in developed countries and birth rate declines in most developing countries are projected to increase the population aged 65 and over to the point in 2050 when it will be 2.5 times that of the population aged 0-4. That’s a big change from 1950, when there were 335 million children in the 0-4 age group and just 131 million people ages 65+.
United Nations Population Division estimates for mid-2010 said there were 642 million persons aged 0-4 and 523 million aged 65+ .( We assume people ages 5-64 make up the rest of the 7.2 billion). So the UN is projecting the 0-4 age group will decline between 2015 and 2020 (a historical first), having peaked at around 650 million. The 65+ population is projected to rise from 601 million in 2015 to 714 million in 2020 during the same period. Crikey, that’s just five years away.

Masters, not just a degree

Medical science, meanwhile, coupled with elevated community awareness of “wellness”, means that more of us will live to be 80, 90 or even 100 years old. So my tongue in cheek song about a 100-year-old Morris dancer who challenges the new squire of the team to a dance-off is maybe not that far-fetched.
Even in my somewhat atrophied social circle you can find people like Mr L, still playing basketball at 68 (“And I’m one of the young ones,” he’ll say). People who have always played a sport or kept fit frequently progress to Masters Games status. The last competition held at the Gold Coast saw 91 year old swimmer Joyce Faunce winning a gold medal in the 50m freestyle. Heather Lee (85) set two new world records in the women’s walking events (category 85+) at the Masters Games 2014. She walked 3,000m (3km) in 23 minutes and some seconds, backing up with a win in the 5,000m (5km) walk in 40:06:97. These high-achieving oldies put a new twist on the meaning of life, making the dragging of two wheelie bins up a 100m driveway seem like a doddle.

Rumination can be fun

I was persuaded to think about age and its complexities this week when engrossed in one of Clare Russell’s Dru Yoga sessions. The stillness and body awareness quickly makes one aware of what parts of one’s body really hurt. The Dru Yoga ethos is you don’t do it if it hurts. So there are things one doesn’t do, but one does enough to feel it in the body later.
I’m very bad at relaxation/meditation. Random thought keep swooping in – don’t forget eye drops, shoelaces and taco shells on the way home – oh no, I should have gone to the toilet first – did Bill Shorten lose the leadership ballot or did I just have a microsleep and dream that? – what will I write about on Friday and should I correct things I got wrong last week? All kinds of ruminative thoughts surface, dive and resurface, over and over. At one stage I invented a tiny leprechaun with a little rubber mallet and mentally trained him to run around my head walloping me, saying encouraging things like: “Take that, ye eejit.”

As a thought-stopping exercise it was shite.

Last week:
• Correspondent Barbs wished her son could have studied Latin but she steered him into German (for the sciences), not the other way around;
• Fiddler on the Roof tells me that Si hoc legere scis nimium erudittionis habes! means ‘if you can read this you are over-educated’ (just in case someone adopts it as a tattoo).

Listen to Ann Leung’s interview with us played on 612ABC this morning ahead of the Maleny Music Festival which starts tonight.