Here’s to more good years — Kua Ee Heok
MAY 10 — The first cohort of baby boomers turned 65 last year.
This chronological age categorises them as senior citizens and they pose a challenge to the biblical calculus that life span is three score years and 10.
The greying of the population is probably the most significant demographic phenomenon in the 21st century.
Growing old is sometimes viewed in sheer economic terms as the phase when decrements outweigh increments — a bleak prediction of financial woes.
The 3Ds — despondency, dependency and decrepitude — define societal perception of ageing. Such prejudices arise from unfounded notions about elderly people.
Ageism is a set of stereotypes about growing old and it permeates subtly through remarks and caricature in the mass media. Ageists have contemptuous attitudes towards the elderly whose needs are belittled because they are apparently no longer economically productive and are dependent members of the society.
We will soon realise that ageism is a pernicious attitude because the elderly are our future selves and if we harbour such negativity towards them, we may encounter the same prejudice later.
NOT AN ILLNESS
In Singapore, the Gerontological Society has waged a campaign spearheaded by the late Henry Lim, its past president, who was always quick to admonish any hint of ageism in the media.
Ageing is a normal biological process affecting both the body and mind. Old age is not an illness — it is a truism that growing old is a state of mind.
An important fact supported by research is that the ageing process is not necessarily in pace with our chronological age and varies with individuals and communities. Of critical importance is functional capacity or the ability to engage in purposeful activity.
The Gerontological Research Programme in the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore, has conducted a longitudinal study on resilience in the Singapore populace, including the baby boomers.
The studies have confirmed that the majority of people between 65 and 74 are still independent and not frail. The baby boomers interviewed in Singapore and Batu Pahat, Malaysia, have not fully retired and are still working full-time or part-time.
Significantly, the “new-old” simply need new roles to redirect their energy for a new sense of identity like when there were 17-year-olds struggling through Erikson’s phase of identity.
Nevertheless, today, Erickson’s theory is incomplete. Many baby boomers do not just sit back and contemplate but they are planning their lives and looking forward to the next stage, not backward.
VALUABLE HUMAN RESOURCE
There is not only a third age but also a fourth age — there are now in Singapore 1.8 per cent or 70,000 people who are 80 years and above.
We have discovered that the majority of the “new-old” are not retiring as early as expected. They are better educated and should be viewed as a valuable human resource — an asset that can benefit the larger community.
The potential of this burgeoning group is phenomenal and the challenge for policymakers is to harness the energy and skills of the “new-old”.
Indeed, the economic equation will not be in dire straits if their skills and talents are recognised for gainful employment or volunteerism. Working in retirement, an oxymoron, may in fact be a reality.
Many experts believe that, given the right policies, the effects of ageing of the baby boomers, though momentous, need not be catastrophic.
The silver enterprise can benefit the economy — there will be more shops with a plethora of merchandise for the elderly, such as food, medications, insurance, books, clothing and special beds.
Travel agencies, education centres and the new media can increase the quality of life. Tools for independent living in the correction of sensory deficits, home needs, architectural design and furniture can assist the elderly live independently.
To prevent dependency of the frail elderly who live alone, tools for independent living and home-care help are necessary. Information technology must be exploited to improve the quality of life and assist in caring for the elderly at home.
Assuredly, new studies have shown that the natural history of depression and dementia has changed. Early treatment means good prognosis for late-life depression.
Dementia patients today live longer with better quality of life. It is possible to embark on an interventional programme on resilience for elderly people to lower the incidence of depression and dementia in the community.
Imperatively, the concept of “successful ageing” has to be redefined. The baby boomers at 65 are still in a gregarious mood, and they don’t want to slide into ennui and wish to confound the ominous prediction:
Last scene of all
That ends this strange eventful history
Is second childishness and mere oblivion
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste and sans everything.
(From Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”)
The message should be: “Don’t identify being 65 with imagery of decrepitude, but more good years to enjoy old age!” — Today
* Dr Kua Ee Heok is a professor in the Department of Psychological Medicine, National University of Singapore, and senior consultant psychiatrist in the National University Hospital. He is the president of the Pacific-Rim College of Psychiatrists and president of the Gerontological Society of Singapore. He is also author of a new book, “Ageing Baby Boomers: The Most Pressing Issue of the Age”.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.