No36 June 1999.4
1999 : International Year of the Elderly
"Aging is not an illness. It is simply one of the stages of growth."
The successes of science and the progress of medicine have in recent decades led to a spectacular increase in the average age of the earth's human population. What is called "the Third Age" now includes an important segment of the world population. In the industrialized world, life expectancy has gone up by 25%, thanks to the reduction in infant mortality and the conquest of many of the illnesses of old age. In a single century life-expectancy has increased more than in the preceding five thousand years. In many countries, the age-range which is increasing the most rapidly is that of the over eighty-fives.
In the twenty-first century, even more dramatic changes can be expected. At the world level, average life-expectancy may go up from 66 to 110 or 120. A number of people are already living for more than a century, and scientists believe that this is man's natural life-span. Some even speak of pushing the figure higher still by controlling the genes which govern longevity.
At the same time, prolonging our existence comes at a price. It will make heavy cultural, political and economic demands on our societies. A number of questions will have to be faced.
The concept of the welfare state is already being queried. Who then will take financial responsibility for the elderly: the state, or private individuals? Will aging societies fall into economic stagnation? Are the elderly going to become a powerful political force? If so, what will be their demands? If our years on earth are going to be prolonged, will it be possible to maintain a certain quality of life, or will elderly people be condemned to a miserable existence of failing health and financial insecurity? Are we going to see a cultural shift away from the present interest in the young towards interest in the elderly?
Many of these challenges will concern women more than men, since in industrialized countries they live longer. The increase in the elderly section of the population in Canada is among the most rapid in the world. Today they constitute 12% of the total population, but it is estimated that in the year 2041 the figure will rise to 23%, when there will be 1.6 million Canadians aged eighty-five or over.
The UN decision to declare 1999 the International Year for the Elderly, with the motto "A Society for all Ages", is a sign of the international community's concern. The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, spoke of the new society in his message for the World Day of the Elderly in 1998. It will be a society which, instead of treating the elderly as if they were fit only to be deposited in hospitals and nursing homes, will consider them as both agents and beneficiaries of development.
The proportion of elderly people is higher in the industrialized countries than in those of the Third World. In the latter however the numbers of the elderly are increasing even more rapidly in absolute terms. In its annual report for 1998, the World Health Organization confirmed this trend: "The increase in the number of elderly persons will be greatest in the countries of the Third World. These countries however are not well equipped, in medical and social services particularly, to meet the needs of the elderly." One can understand that countries with very slender resources have not yet begun to turn their attention to the fact that their populations are aging. In Black Africa, for example, there are more pressing problems: accelerated demographic increase, high death-rate among mothers and infants, the massive rural exodus. Nevertheless in the year 2,000 the number of elderly people in the Third World will have increased by 90% compared to 1980 and by 300% in 2025. In Africa however it is not expected that there will be significant changes in the number of elderly before 2025.
Different societies regard old age differently. Old people in Africa are regarded as powerful and wise; in the West they are treated as socially useless. In rural traditional Africa, the old are few in number but they have an important role to play in society. Where literacy is not widespread, it is only the old who have knowledge: not technical knowledge available to all, but mythical knowledge, to which the young cannot aspire. The old know secrets, the sacred story of origins, the Law of the Fathers, the meaning of things, the guiding principles of the social order. Myth reproduces primordial ritual, and the elderly are the priests of the domestic cult, able to utter the sacred words, to release vital powers, for blessing or cursing.
In this situation, old people have a fundamental educational function. They not only know the clan myth themselves, but they have also the duty of passing on to the young both the history of the clan and the social rules which they themselves embody. The transmission takes place in successive stages, especially during the initiation ceremonies which are the centre of the educational process. The system of secret knowledge, to be only gradually disclosed, means that the elderly are able to cling to their cultural, religious and cultural domination to the end. Growing older becomes a process of acquisition, and the elderly, who have gone through the process, are highly esteemed. The old person is the sage, the wise one, the model, he who has withstood the approach of death by being faithful to the values of the group. Nor does he fear death, for it will enable him to join the ancestors and continue to serve the group by showering blessings on his descendants. When life is seen as a progression which continues beyond the grave, old age becomes the final stage in the advance towards the fulness of knowledge and power.
All this is very different from the usual vision in Western societies. There life is seen as a series of separate stages: the growth to maturity, the years of fulness, and then the decline and fall before the inevitable end. To cope with the unprecedented prolongation of life-expectancy, and the continual increase in the number of elderly people, Western society is now emphasizing two things: the responsibility of the individual for preserving his own health, and the responsibility of all for the care of the most needy elderly.
We have to take our own precautions. Since old age is not something we can really want, we are told that we must do what we can to delay its onset and strive for eternal youth. So our society provides scientific aids: pills, lotions, surgery. The aim however seems to be, not to develop the vital capacities of the elderly, but rather to deny the reality of old age, regarded as degrading. Never before in the history of mankind has society lavished such care on the elderly, but old age is still regarded as something profoundly negative.
The image of the Third Age is that of a period of decline, marked by human and social inadequacy. This however is a stereotype which by no means fits every situation. There are great differences in the ways different people live their old age. Some retain their dignity and serenity, and find in this stage of life new opportunities for growth and commitment. Others unhappily experience old age as a trauma, and swing from moods of passive resignation to ill-tempered resentment and despair. There are in fact as many kinds of old age as there are old persons. Everyone is preparing his old age throughout his life, for old age is the culminating point, the period which crowns all. Everyone's task is to accept the reality of old age and to make the best of it, on the level of faith as well as on the purely human level.
Perhaps the aim should be to take the best from both the West and from the countries of the Third World. There can be no substitute for experience, and this is something which the elderly everywhere possess and can use for the benefit of the next generation. Traditional Africa handed on the secrets of life to the young, and the West too needs to exploit the cultural and religious wealth contained in the memories of the elderly. In the West too the experience of the elderly can help to improve the human quality of our societies, while the special virtues of old age have something to teach everyone: disinterested concern, memory of the past, interdependence, a more rounded vision of life. The third age is also the season of simplicity and contemplation, the time when "being" is more important than "doing". Every society would be better for assuming these qualities of old age.
It should not be forgotten either that elderly people have their own specific mission in proclaiming that there is not only a past and a present but also a future, and that this last extends into eternity. Old people are called to be signs of hope in an often sceptical world. Their own faith can encourage and support those who are seeking to construct the Kingdom. They themselves should not live in the past but turn towards the future. If they sometimes seem to be relapsing into childhood, this is a spiritual childhood, for they are people who have realized what really matters in life. We need their perspective to support our own hope when we are tempted to discouragement.
Failure to honour old age amounts to destroying in the morning the house we shall have to inhabit in the evening.
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.