Elderly, senior citizen, retiree, grey-haired, oxygen thief, silver tsunami, a burden on the world economy. These are some of the words and terms used to describe the fastest-growing segment of the population: the over-65s.
Due to a shrinking workforce, there are fewer young people in the labour market to fund the retirees. Our life expectancy has increased by more than 30 years in the past few decades, which means there are already people living who will reach an age older than 120 years.
With a retirement age of 60, people will spend more years in retirement than they did working, and chances are their investments will run out. As if that's not enough to fuel your fears, the dementia monster lurks on the horizon for one in three people over 75.
No wonder Americans pursue anything that has “anti-ageing" on the label like obsessed individuals — from botox to freezing stem cells, creams and ointments, even injections of buttock fat into the cheeks. Millions are spent on hair colouring, plastic surgery and miraculous remedies for staying young. And it's all a chase after the wind — ageing is inevitable, whether you're tightly pulled or not.
The media plays an important role in portraying ageing as the worst thing that can happen to a person, through mass hysteria and apocalyptic demography. Nothing positive appears about ageing unless it's an ad for a funeral home or incontinence products. And when you look at the pictures advertising retirement homes, you wonder where these people come from who are grey-haired but don't have even a wrinkle.
All of this creates a false impression that means most people are unprepared for this phase of their lives. It's not thought about, and people don't want to deal with the idea of getting old. Denial to the extreme sets in.
Accompanying this is a discrimination that is unimaginable compared to discrimination based on gender and race. A joke about the opposite sex is sexist; aimed at someone with a different hue, it's racist. But jokes about older people make the teller a comedian!
Ten years ago, cancer was people's greatest fear, now it's dementia. The more research is done, the less we truly know what causes this condition.
Dementia: Still no answers
There is no sign on the horizon of a cure, despite the billions spent on research. The mystical nature of the human consciousness evades scientific researchers time and time again. With more than 200 types of dementia already classified, there are still no answers. Only more questions.
‘Little help, guidance or support is offered to assist the dying..’
Until recently, most women gave birth “naturally". Midwives handled the event with skill and efficiency in the comfort of the bedroom at home. Then the medical profession intervened and turned what was considered normal into a medical problem. As a result, nowadays there is little that is considered normal about giving birth — it has become a scheduled medical procedure performed in sophisticated hospitals.
The same has happened with ageing — it has slowly but surely become a medical problem. Where grandpa, 10 years ago, experienced a stroke due to blocked arteries, he is now diagnosed with dementia after brain scans and sent home with a death sentence.
Little help, guidance or support is offered to assist the dying. A new rhetoric of loss, the decline of a loved one and living death takes over, to the point where most people living with dementia are lying heavily sedated in a cold hospital bed.
Under the ‘medical gaze’
Family and friends disappear, medical interventions increase, and quality of life declines. The sophistication of science has resulted in the so-called “medical gaze" which sees only a biomedical case, a patient who must be controlled through medication so that he or she will be as manageable as possible for the nursing home staff. Feed, pull, bathe, clean — job done!
What happens to the person behind this diagnosis? The mother, the teacher, the introvert, the botanist, the wonderful cook? Is the entire page of life wiped clean by dementia, leaving only a living corpse behind?
Could it be that the world's outlook, the medicalisation of ageing, is the cause of this struggle? That our inability to see beyond the condition is the greatest source of suffering and sorrow, rather than the condition itself? That the aggression, wandering, sadness and withdrawal are a response to the way dementia sufferers are handled, rather than a consequence of the “disease"?
Time to look inward
Could it be that ageing is a transitional phase, a time to look inward? That your being in the world can be viewed differently outside the paradigm of a medical condition?
Desmond Tutu tried to make the world aware of “the sacredness of the human spirit". Dementia's roots lie, among other things, in the brain. The question is: Does it also touch the “spirit"?
Researchers interested in the human psyche have found that a person's self-awareness is not compromised due to dementia but due to the way the world handles them. Intense observation shows that awareness is not affected, to the extent that it is even mentioned in the World Health Organisation's definition of dementia:
“Dementia is a syndrome — usually of a chronic or progressive nature — characterised by a more severe decline in cognitive function (ie, the ability to process thoughts) than what is typically observed in normal ageing. It affects memory, thinking ability, orientation, comprehension, calculation, learning capacity, language and judgment. However, awareness is not affected. The decline in cognitive function is often accompanied by a decline in emotional control, social behaviour or motivation, and sometimes these things precede the cognitive impairment."
‘And even if a mother cannot remember her child's name, there is a sense of security in the presence of her flesh and blood that does not need to be spoken.’
This basically means individuals with dementia may not be able to communicate verbally, they may not use the right words to describe something, but they know. Awareness does not need to be verbalised; it is a deeply rooted knowing.
Many times you hear, “we no longer visit her. She is no longer the mother we grew up with." Motherhood is not a brain function; it is a function of the soul. A deeply rooted knowing that is stored in every cell of a mother's body.
And even if a mother cannot remember her child's name, there is a sense of security in the presence of her flesh and blood that does not need to be spoken. And how will you, as her child, know this? You will spend enough time with her, look into her eyes, then you will know.
The pace of ageing has become too slow for the technological world — retirement is as good as being discarded. Older people take the stigma to heart and believe that “the twilight of the day is cold" (Alba Bouwer).
New neurological pathways in the brain
Few researchers, however, focus on neuroplasticity, the way in which the human brain continuously forms new neurological pathways. At the age of 55 to 60, the brain develops neurological pathways that have never been formed before. They bring insight, introspection, reflection, contemplation and wisdom.
A life's experience is given new meaning with this “ageing" of the brain, and the pursuit of status suddenly becomes less important. And here the conflict arises: while the world hands out golden handshakes to 60-year-olds, the brain develops new opportunities for insight and creativity.
Unfortunately, conditioning predominates in most cases; after buying a sports car during their midlife crisis or starting a quick romance with a carefree blonde, most people retreat and begin indulging in bladder complaints and retirement home discussions.
‘And if this introspection is accompanied by wisdom, it allows for dignified integration and remaining nurtured within family bonds.’
The final stanza of life should be seen for what it is, a time to boldly embrace the intangible part of being human. To become still and listen to the rhythmic heartbeat of sunrise and sunset, the changing seasons, the magnificence of the universe.
And if this introspection is accompanied by wisdom, it allows for dignified integration and remaining nurtured within family bonds.
It is time for ageing to be restored to its rightful place as the best phase of a life's return on investment, for older people to assume their rightful place in society and begin adding value where we need it most — making the world a better place.
The Jewish concept of “tikkun olam" refers to the repairing of that which is broken, and from Jewish culture we learn that our covenant with life is to make the world a better place. Who better to take on this role than older people? From them we learn wisdom, insight, forgiveness and compassion — if only we pause and listen long enough.
♦ VWB ♦
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