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Tuesday, 12 February 2013

A full life, well lived

A good old age isn't just about national policies; it's also about changing mindsets 

WAS Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw corrects when he said that "youth is wasted on the young"? For the old, looking on the young, it may seem so. Seen in retrospect, the strength, vitality and potential of youth rarely appear to be utilized to their fullest: the wisdom to appreciate the value and joys of youth apparently being something that is attained in later years, through regret over a misspent life. So, the inspiring tales of sexagenarians, septuagenarians and octogenarians climbing Mount Everest, running in marathons, completing triathlons, going back to university and being more active and fitter than "young" people should hardly be a surprising or astonishing feat. Some in society may label such active senior citizens as "trying to be young" or free to pursue such activities because they are now unencumbered with "real responsibilities"; but that's just the envy talking.

What is perhaps surprising is that not more "old" people are seen or portrayed as leading active lives. If the active ageds are covered by the press, they are often presented as something unique: going against the grain. But, often in the media, old people make their appearance to recount some event in history, as sad abandoned inmates in old folk's homes, grateful recipients of welfare aid, or "in memoriam". Certainly, these people do exist, too, and deserve attention; but such portrayals do a disservice to senior citizens because it categorizes them as a phenomenon, or symptom of a social disease, rather than as real people. It gives the impression that old age is a terrible stage in life, to be endured as one waits for death, a corridor through which to pass from one existence to another, rather than a room or dance hall in which to live and exist. And in doing so, it perpetuates the stereotype of "old age": dooming old people to living out their days preparing for death, instead of living life.
But, what is the reality of old age? True, the skin gets thinner and wrinkles, the body less well-toned (yes, even for Russian President Vladimir Putin), and the batteries need recharging more often. But a body is not a life. It is just a vessel to carry life. Treat it well enough, and it will provide transport for many good years. And, whether the body be young or old, how far it travels, and in which direction, depends entirely on the driver. The reality of life, youth, old age, and whether being "old" or "young" is a good or bad thing, is whatever one chooses to make of it. Just as youth can be wasted on the young, old age can be wasted on the old. A person has only this one life to live; that life need not be filled with regret looking backwards, nor dread looking forward.

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