In a perfect world we live till 100, remain youthful and die painlessly, preferably in our own bed. In reality, the average age of death in Australia is 80 for men and 84 for women. We can’t stop shrinking and wrinkling and in all likelihood, we’ll die from a chronic illness dragged out over years, probably in a hospital bed or nursing home.
The gap between reality and the ideal has become larger, along with a growing sense that old age is somehow revolting. Old people are seen as an economic burden, an affront to glamour in a celebrity era, and a problem for the health system.
As Melanie Joosten says in her new book A Long Time Coming: Essays On Old Age, “There is an invisible turning point where we stop respecting old people and begin punishing them for existing.”
As Australia ages, a very different picture emerges in developing countries such as India where there seem to be young people everywhere. Have a look at these numbers: In Australia last year 19 per cent of the population was kids up to the age of 14. In India these kids formed 28 per cent of the population. At the other end of the spectrum, 15 per cent of Australia’s population was older than 65. In India, the oldies form less than six per cent.
It’s worth considering the way traditional Indian society sees old people and how Australia sees them. We might find clues to help reduce the gap between our ideal version of old age and the frightening reality.
It’s worth considering the way traditional Indian society sees old people and how Australia sees them.
It comes down to four things. First, connectedness. Traditionally, Indians live in extended families where a son brings his new wife home to live with his parents. Children grow up with grandparents around. Not only does this solve the childcare issue while parents work, but it also brings physical and mental benefits to both old and young.
Compare this with the nuclear family where children are often looked after in childcare centres by harried, under-paid carers. In some families, children have no connection with old people at all: their parents have migrated from the country where grandparents live, or they have older parents and their grandparents are dead.
Second, respect. This is not just a vague word that connotes admiration. Throughout Asia, the elderly are the guardians of a great store of knowledge. They have lived longer and so know more. That means they can give precious advice – otherwise known as wisdom. And as we all should know by now, knowledge is power. Respect is shown through gestures. In India touching an older person’s feet shows respect. Gestures and symbolism matter.
But what happens when a society stops seeing old people as wise and instead mocks them for being doddery, dismisses them as having nothing to contribute, condemns them for being a burden and makes little or no gesture of respect? Is this how we want the world to treat us when we get old?
Third, duty. This is an entrenched concept in Asian countries. In traditional Indian societies looking after ageing family members is a duty. Sons (or should that be daughters-in law) look after their parents at home. Generally speaking, oldies are not off-loaded into nursing homes (granny-dumping, while on the rise, is usually condemned).
Sons are the proxy welfare state for the elderly. Ideally, it motivates men to work and take responsibility for others, rather than leaning on the government. Children, who grow up watching their parents care for their grandparents, understand their duty.
Throughout Asia, the elderly are the guardians of a great store of knowledge.
And fourth, attitude to death. In many advanced countries death is scary and confusing. This is evident in the euthanasia debate and our general discomfort with the ritual of death and its aftermath. In India, death is part of a natural cycle. While no one wants to die, the idea of reincarnation, where the life-death-life-death cycle continuities in perpetuity, provides at least a semblance of comfort because it offers the ego a chance to believe that it is not irrelevant.
This is not to crudely argue that the East deals with old age better than the West – increasingly it does not. Globally mobile labour, fewer children, more disconnected families and an intense focus on individual fulfillment are not the preserve of advanced countries alone.
And nor is this a cry to return to traditional values. But if we want to work out how to deal with an ageing society, we need to see ageing in a broader context – one that reminds people of their tiny part in the bigger human story, and one that realigns their mindset to see things differently.
Sushi Das is a journalist and author. Follow her on Twitter: sushidas1