Tuesday, March 28

At what age do we start getting old?


The writer (second right) with (from left) brother Edmund, cousin Benny and the other brother Edric, in this photo taken in 1957.

IN 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) created a global campaign to focus attention on stereotypes about ageing and had designated Oct 1 every year as the ‘International Day of Older Persons’.

We don’t have to wait till October to write about it. It was the late musician, David Bowie, who said: “If you are pining for youth I think it produces a stereotypical old man because you only live in memory, you live in a place that doesn’t exist.

“Ageing is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.”

Maggie Kuhn, the founder of the Gray Panthers movement, wrote this: “There are six myths about old age:

  1. that it’s a disease, a disaster;
  2. that we are mindless;
  3. that we are sexless;
  4. that we are useless;
  5. that we are powerless, and;
  6. that we are all alike.

Modern-day perception of what age is a person considered to be ‘old’ is very much open for much debate and argument these days. Who actually decides and how do we ascertain when a person becomes a senior citizen or a veteran anyway?

Government bureaucracy worldwide has determined that for the mere purpose of setting a figure to cut off – usually for reasons of offering healthcare, preferential treatment and to set a ceiling age for folks to retire from an active working life. Banks and other financial institutions, as well as insurance companies, have also set mandatory cut-off dates to ensure that they are able to collect on any debts or loans owed to them.

However, some countries like Singapore, Japan and those in Europe are still receptive and willing to allow their citizens who are older than their set retirement age to continue working for as long as they are willing and able.

According to the Bible in Psalm 90:10, it’s written: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”

This is equivalent to 70 years of age. In Malaysia, as of this year, our average life expectancy is 76.65 years. The mandatory retirement age here is 60, but employees can extend workers on contract for as long as they are able and capable.

If William Shakespeare is to be believed, there are ‘Seven Ages of Man’, in which he wrote about in his play ‘As You Like It’ (Act II Scene VII):

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…
“At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
“And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel,
“And shining morning face, creeping like snail,
“Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
“Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
“Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
“Full of strange oaths and bearded like the bard,
“Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
“…And then the justice, in fair round belly with good capon lined.
“…The sixth age shifts into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
“With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
“…Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history,
“Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
“Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

An almost too perfect description of a man’s life, which still rings true some 400 years later!

It is not easy nowadays to ‘age’ a person – some people may be old at 55, 60 or 75 – but the most important criteria is dependent on their personal life expectancy, which varies between individuals and across countries.

For example, imagine a typical 52-year-old woman living in Malaysia, whose life expectancy is 76. That woman should not be considered old until she is 65. Currently in the United States, a woman is only considered old at 73, and a man at 70, according to experts in the field researching and studying ageism.

Even when one is considered as having aged at whatever number of years, there are still the five stages of ageing to contend with and these are:

  1. Self-sufficiency – where the senior is entirely self-reliant, lives independently and can complete their daily living and activities with ease;
  2. Interdependence – some support and assistance will be required. They can still live alone, but may require some support with running errands, being driven around, cooking and cleaning tasks and having some slight cognitive decline;
  3. Dependence – at this stage they can no longer live on their own. They exhibit cognitive decline, and have physical health issues, and thus, assisted living or nursing is needed;
  4. Crisis management – immediate medical support, usually having a life-threatening health issue, dementia or Alzheimer’s, requiring intensive and professional care at home or in a nursing home, and;
  5. End of life – the last and final stage of the ageing process. Nearing their final days, some may choose to stop receiving medical treatment and enter hospice care. The goal at this stage is for the older adult to feel as comfortable as possible.

There is a lovely quote from Maeve Binchy, which goes like this: “The great thing about getting older is that you become more mellow. Things aren’t as black and white, and you become much more tolerant. You can see the good in things much more easily than getting enraged as you used to do when you were young.”

It is also true that you are as old or as young as you feel and behave. I have known people who appear older even though in terms of age, they are just in their early 20s; and so too witty elderly folks sprouting nuggets of youthful enthusiasm even though I know them to be 60 or older!

This photo, taken in 1972, shows the columnist (second left) with his Sibu Borneo Company colleagues (from left) Sim Khoon Seng, Chris Chung and Shookry Gani – all in their late 20s, in the prime of their lives.

It is all a matter of personal beliefs, lifestyles and the way each individual approaches life in general.

I remember as a young lad aged 5 or 6, roaming around at play in the fields and spacious orchard of fruit trees and small streams with my other cousins in my grandfather’s homestead in the 1950s – not a care in the world except to await my mother’s call before sunset to come in, have my bath (no showers those days) and prepare for dinner. After which there would be more playtime indoors before an early night at 8 o’clock when the cannon across the Sarawak River went off (our faithful time-keeper for bedtime in the 1950s to the 1960s).

In the blink of an eye, we were all in school and by the late 1960s, had finished our Cambridge A Levels. Many classmates had gone for further studies, others to start work.

By 20 years of age, a quarter of our lives had been spent.

The following quarter, from 20 to 40, were spent building a career in business which, for me, had involved working for multinational corporations dealing with everything from fast moving consumer goods to motor vehicles with employers criss-crossing the globe.

The third quarter of my life, from 40 to 60, I had gone into my own, having set up my own business in the film production services industry and gone into editing, writing and voluntary community work.

What has happened too during the past two or three decades, with both parents approaching their third and fourth stages of ageing, was that my siblings and I had found that we had to devote more of our time towards their care and attention.

We were fortunate that we were living in close proximity to them both and were able to extend whatever care and assistance when required, which became more and more needed towards the final years.

Mum passed on eight years ago at age 85, and Dad in October 2022 at age 96 – both had led much fulfilled lives fully devoted to Our Almighty God.

This photo, taken in 2018, shows the columnist (standing, centre) and his family: flanking him were sister Edwina and brother Edric, while those seated were (from left) brother Prof Dr Edmund, their father Ong Kee Bian, and sister Edrea.

I shall conclude with two of my favourite quotes on ageing:

  1. “The older you get, the more you realise you have no desire for drama, conflict and any kind of intensity. You just want a cosy home, a nice book and a person who knows how you drink your coffee.”
  2. “As you get older, you become quieter. Because you realise how much nonsense you’ve wasted your time on. And now you know that peace is more important than anything else.”

May the Good Lord continue to guide us all in our path and journey towards our final home.

Bless all our ‘elderlies and seniors’, and may they never ever feel their age, but be ever youthful and be young at heart for as long as they want to be!