26 May 2008

Old People, Young People

I was recently telling a friend that working through my family's genealogy has been a journey in self-discovery. What I like most about delving into the past is coming face to face with the achievements of other people. I love the realisation that no matter what I do, know, achieve, no matter where I travel or what experience touches me, someone, someone in my past has already done this before me.

That realisation is profoundly humbling. It redefines one's life and gives it meaning, not as an isolated entity, smug in its uniqueness, but as part of a pattern, something greater, universal which has been shared by generations and will continue to be shared for years to come.
This is what my ancestors tell me. That I am not alone and what I have seen and done, they have seen it all before. The thought brings me much comfort.

But don't misunderstand, this realisation is not strange to me. I have never been the sort of person who looks down in disdain at the older generation with conceited thoughts about the superiority of my youth, neither was I convinced that I would live life as no one else had before me, that I would pluck each second and extract every moment, every adrenalin induced pulse, climb every peak and conquer every obstacle.

On the contrary. When I look at the elderly around me, I ask myself many questions. What was their childhood like? What were they like as a teenager? What have they seen in their life? What joys, pains, experiences, disappointments have made them who they are today? What was their greatest journey, achievement, love? I do this out of curiosity. I do this because in a way, it is an intrinsic part of the writer's mentality. I do this because I want to know where I am going and where I have come from. And, to some extent, I do this because I hope that when I too, am 80 or 90, someone young with a different culture and outlook from mine, someone at the prime of their life, without a wrinkle or grey hair, will deign look at me with curious eyes and also wonder, who I was and what I lived.

I wish there were more mainstream films or TV shows featuring older generations. It is unrealistic for our society to spend so much effort on maintaining a youthful appearance, building a nest egg, living longer, wanting to be healthier and any other activities associated with enjoying a longer lifespan when the media - and therefore, the social and cultural psyche - are not adapted to or accepting of old age.

What a farce it is that while society is now living longer according to demographics, and that the buying power of senior citizens is very significant, still, the media faces appear younger and younger. It is a joke that Western society plays on itself.

To truly enjoy old age, Western society needs to not just be physically and financially adapted to it. It needs to relinquish those absurd ideas that life is only worth living when young. And don't get me wrong, I love the images of youth. Youth is beauty. And I know that youth sells. What I am saying is that we are shooting ourselves in the foot if while we aim to live for many more years - at least according to the effort we seem to spend on this, especially medically - we continue to alienate ourselves from what it means to be old. It seems to me a contradiction. Shouldn't we be a little more curious and eager to know about old age? It makes no sense.

And so yes, I would like to see more about the older generation in movies, soaps, comedy shows. I want to know about older customers and what they think. Of course I am not saying I will be like them, since every cohort understandably differs. But I can still learn something.

In fact the more we ignore old age, the more prejudiced we are about it and the more afraid we are about it. I have something to shatter your stereotypes. My grandmother travels more than I do. Possibly more than a lot of young people. She is 85 years old this year. In the last 20 years, she has been to Spain, Germany, Corsica (more than once), Canada, Wales, Australia (more than once), Hawaii (more than once), the South of France, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Pennsylvania, Vietnam and she is currently planning a trip to Vietnam and Australia for September. She might also be going to New Zealand at the end of the year. My grandmother likes to play computer games. She still cooks and is still mentally sharp. Like me, she loves history. She also enjoys watching the Discovery Channel and other travel shows. She goes out often and does her shopping weekly, catches the tram to visit the dentist regularly.

Here's another thought. When Jason and I were in the Schwarzwald (Blackforest, Germany) in 2005, we stayed in a gorgeous Chalet-style hotel on the top of a hill. One night, we decided to dine with the rest of the guests, in the hotel restaurant. It was a friendly, warm environment and the hostess made a fuss of reading the extensive menu to us in two languages (she couldn't speak English very well and had to say a lot in French so that I could translate to Jason). She mouthed every item in the menu as though she were savouring it and salivating with anticipation. I could tell she loved her job. And she was good at it: we felt very pampered. The dinner was excellent, it had one of the best portions and food quality I've ever eaten in my life. I looked around the room and I realised that we were the youngest people there. The other guests were all about 50 years at least. It was not the first time in our travels that we found ourselves outnumbered by older people who were enjoying life, eating well and having cultured, interesting conversations (I eavesdropped a couple of times).

My experiences are probably different to those of others. Besides, not all elderlies can afford to travel, for example. But what I am trying to say is that old age is not ugly. In some ways it is more enjoyable.

In my psychology classes, we discussed prejudices about the aged. It was interesting to learn that according to recent studies, thinking positively about getting old can increase your lifespan by 7 years. For example, the mere thought that one is getting old and that one should just 'accept' physical ailments as a natural process of ageing, can often deter an individual from seeking proper medical attention. This way of thinking only worsens their medical condition and therefore potentially shortens their lifespan. Positive attitudes towards getting old are also associated with less hearing problems.

Overall, our own expectations about old age serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Psychologists have studied these old age expectations in several countries. They found that China has better and greater expectations about the aged group.

In China, for instance, old people are revered and expected to contribute much more fully to social and political life than is common in the West.
-Brown, Rupert. Prejudice: Its Social Psychology. Blackwell Publishing, 1995.

According to an experiment by Levy and Langer (1994) which tested several groups of people aged 59-91 years, Chinese subjects outperformed American subjects in four memory tasks. Similarly, Chinese subjects reported more positive attitudes towards ageing than did the American subjects. For this age group, the study found a positive correlation between memory performance and attitude towards ageing: the more positive the attitude towards ageing, the better the performance in the memory task.

If we want to enjoy old age, we first need to change our attitude towards it.
Let me extend this thought.
If we want to be serious about enjoying life, especially given that today, a lifespan of 80 years represents thirty or so years of being OLD, we need desperately to modify our outlook on old age.

This social change can be accelerated by featuring more aged people in films, television programmes and advertising. The media portrayal of the aged should cease to reinforce certain stereotypes (unattractive/grumpy/helpless/asexual). Take a look at how Europe portrays that generation, there is a difference. I personally find that senior European actresses seem more respected in their respective countries and are still allowed to be sexy for the camera. Think Catherine Deneuve, Marie-Christine Adam (particularly in Priceless/Hors De Prix), Fanny Ardant and Belen Rueda. Education needs to play a role in valuing the aged and most importantly, Western family values should again teach children to show more respect for the aged.

I applaud the long scene in the recent film "Love in Time of Cholera", which featured a 70 year old couple making love. The director did not attempt to hide the realities of life and by not attempting to hide them, he promoted them. The less we hide something, the more acceptable it becomes. The aged DO have a sex life, get use to it. More scenes like these would be welcome. In fact it seems ironic to hide that old people have sex when according to psychological research, old people report greater satisfaction with their sex life than young people.

Enough said.

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