Growing Old Gracefully

Three old ladies

FEATURE STORY

The global population is aging, thanks to increasing health consciousness, improved nutrition and medical care. With more advances in the field of Geriatrics, life expectancy should even increase further. Notwithstanding the multiple morbidities associated with aging, life can still be fun and meaningful in the prolonged sunset period of one’s life

Text and Photos By Henrylito D. Tacio


In the beginning, men live longer. Adam, the first man, was already 130 years old when he his son Seth was born. He lived 800 more years. “Adam lived 930 years, and then he died,” the Bible said.

Seth lived for about 912 years while another patriarch, Jared, was 962 before he died. But Methuselah had the record: he was 782 when his son Lamech was born. All in all, he lived 969 years. Lamech was the father of Noah; he was 182 years old when Noah came.

“Aging is a simple fact of life – a stage we all lead to,” said Dr Felicitas Artiaga-Soriano, assistant head of the Department of Psychiatry at Veterans Memorial Medical Center. “After the period of young adulthood, which seems brief to many, the aging process begins.”

Old age should not be considered a liability but rather an asset. Antoine de Saint-Exupery hailed, “A man’s age is something impressive, it sums up his life: maturity reached slowly and against many obstacles, illnesses cured, griefs and despairs overcome, and unconscious risks taken; maturity formed through so many desires, hopes, regrets, forgotten things, loves. A man’s age represents a fine cargo of experiences and memories.”

But there are those who hate growing old. “I want to be young forever,” a friend told me recently. There’s a secret formula of staying forever, I told him. “Really,” he inquired. “What’s that?” Follow the footsteps of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. They die younger and both were forever young in the minds of people.

“There is only one cure for gray hair,” commented P.G. Wodehouse. “It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine.”

Fountain of youth

Unknowingly, Ponce de Leon’s quest for the mysterious fountain of youth led him to discover Florida. With its sunny weather, beautiful beaches, and palm trees, Florida in itself is a kind of fountain of youth. Many Americans today who retire to Florida do seem to recover their youthful energy and vigor.

In 1808, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote of a 14th century alchemist, Faust, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a youth restoring potion. As expected, Faust came to an unpleasant end.

Old women

These days, more and more people are growing old. By 2030, the proportion of the world’s population age 65 years and older is expected to increase from around 6 to 10 percent in the year 2000 to 12 to 20 percent 30 years hence.

“This is more or less the time the baby boomers are entering their senior years,” says Dr. Rafael Castillo, the editor-in-chief of Health and Lifestyle. “With a longer life expectancy, the number of elderly 85 years and older is also expected to triple by 2050.”

In an editorial, Dr. Castillo wrote: “More people, including Filipinos, can now expect to live way beyond their retirement years, and hopefully enjoy the good things in life, remaining able and capable of doing the things younger people do. With increasing heath consciousness, improved nutrition and medical care, life expectancy should even increase further.”

Euphemism

In our dialect, we have this joke about not calling the old folks as tigulang (a Bisaya term for “old”) but instead address them as edaran (which means “matured”).

Yes, euphemism is the name of the game. Other terms that can be used include “young adults” or someone having “reached maturity.” And, please, abhor yourself from saying “almost old,” as what Washington Post once labeled those people.

Former American president Bill Clinton was politically correct when he calls those using bifocals and with gray hair as “junior-seniors.” In the Philippines, we use the words “senior citizens” to separate them from “younger generations.”

In 1978, the Associated Press first used the description “near-elderly,” according to William Safire of the famed The New York Times. This “is the fatalistic term, embraced by middle-aged demographers – those from 40 to 60 or so.”

Yes, no one wants to grow old. British playwright George Bernard Shaw declared: “We grow old because we stop playing!” American writer Washington Irving noted: “Whenever a man’s friends begin to compliment him about looking young, he may be sure that they think he is growing old.” And Hy Gardner argued: “You know you’re getting old when everything hurts. And what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work.”

Old couple

C.S. Lewis penned: “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am 50, I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things – including the fear of childishness and the desire to be grown-up.”

Age doesn’t matter

Just because a person is old already, it doesn’t mean he or she cannot achieve anything what younger people can do. History is replete with stories of achievers who are very old and yet they made a record.

Leonardo Da Vinci was 51 years old when he painted the celebrated Mona Lisa. Abraham Lincoln was 52 when he became president of the United States. Dr. Seuss was 54 when he wrote The Cat in the Hat. J.R.R Tolkien was 62 when the famous Lord of the Ring books came out.

Nelson Mandela was 76 when he became the president of South Africa. At 94, comedian George Burns performed at Proctor’s Theater in Schenectady, New York — sixty-three years after her first played there. At 95, choreographer Martha Graham prepared her dance troupe for their latest performance.

Mystery writer Phyllis Whitney was 87 when she published her seventy-first book, The Singing Stone. Mary Baker Eddy was also 87 when she founded the Christian Science Monitor. When she was 82, Leslie Marchand published the final volume of his twelve-volume Byron’s Letters and Journals. At 81, leftist journalist I.F. Stone published The Trial of Socrates, which became a bestseller.

Why do people age

Senescence – that’s how scientists call the process of aging. According to Marquette University professor Sandra Hunter, aging is rather simple: “Cell death… eventually leads to systems malfunctioning and whole body death.”

Take the case of muscle fibers and nerves connected to them; they gradually die, leading to a loss of strength that starts at age 50 and continues steadily thereafter.

“A deeper question for scientists is, why do the cells die?” asked Popular Science.

Scientists have come up with several theories, and most likely a combination of them explains the aging process.

One theory talks of oxidative damage. “Normal cell processes release harmful molecules called oxygen free radicals. Substances in the body called antioxidants neutralize some of them, but a few free radicals escape unscathed and damage cells. Oxidative damage is linked to such diseases and conditions as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s,” the science magazine explained.

Another theory focuses on cell death on genes, which limit how often the cells can replicate. Three American researchers won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2009. They were cited for their work linking the aging process to telomeres.

“Telomeres are clusters of DNA that cap the chromosomes of complex organisms, protecting the rest of the genetic code during cell division,” the magazine pointed out. “As cells age, these caps grow smaller, exposing the DNA to breaks and mutations that can lead to cancer or cell death.”

Here’s another fascinating theory: “Certain genes might also control the life span of an entire organism. Research on worms shows that when scientists mutate genes related to the aging process, they can extend a worm’s life to four times its normal life span. If similar genes exist in humans and can be changed the same way, people could live, theoretically, to 300 years old.”

“More people, including Filipinos, can now expect to live way beyond their retirement years, and hopefully enjoy the good things in life, remaining able and capable of doing the things younger people do”

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