It all started with a not-so-young lady offering me her seat for a three-minute bus ride to the aircraft. My God, do I look so old, I thought to myself. I had been offering a seat to others for decades and now the boot is on the other foot! Last month, my driving licence was renewed for only five years, instead of 10. The premium for my overseas travel insurance was doubled (a privilege for senior citizens). A well-meaning relative advised “Derisking” of investments. At work, I was asked to recommend a smart, intelligent, industrious neurosurgeon some fortyish, for an opening!! Should I read between the lines? My children bombard me with “enough is enough, you have taken night calls for 38 years –it’s time that you started enjoying life.” Why is there a perception that a senior citizen cannot ‘do’ a 100-hour week and revel in life? Just 2000 years ago, life expectancy was 28. Today, Shakespeare certainly would not have inscribed: “The sixth age shifts: sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
In developed countries, life expectancy is 83. Every sixth individual in Japan is an octogenarian. According to WHO, those born in 2030 in developed countries could become centenarians. A life span of 125 in the next century may not be impossible. In just 15 years, every fifth Chennaite will be over sixty. How do you communicate to those around you that the process and concept of getting “old” is not what it was.
“Ageing” is a state of one’s mind! Middle age to me has never been static — it is one’s current age plus five! The most significant aspect of ageing is one’s attitude. A glass can be viewed half-full or half-empty. My late father at 93 would literally jump with joy, every time Sachin dispatched the ball to the ropes. Of course, he would also switch of TV when the ball hit the wicket. Life in the seventh decade and beyond requires a raison d’être. Centenarians are active optimists, with a sense of humour, coping skills and a strong sense of purpose. One does not stop laughing when one becomes old; one becomes old, because one stops laughing. As one wag put it, “It is not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years.” The traditional view has been that wear and tear causes ageing. Markedly different life spans in species, with similar wear and tear, suggest otherwise. The Canada goose lives for 23 years but its kin, the emperor goose, only six years. Engineers know that devices do not age. They function reliably but ‘die’ instantly when a critical component fails. Complex machines have multiple layers of redundancy — with backup systems, and backup systems for the backup systems. Is that why we have an extra kidney, an extra lung, extra teeth, even extra copies of a gene? Longevity is significantly (25%) based on one’s Methuselah gene (Methuselah is a Biblical personality 969 years old). Modifying this gene increased the life span of the Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) 30 times. The genome of Homo sapiens does overlap the genome of the fruit fly, so who knows! The DNA of centenarians suggests that for those with the “right” Methuselah gene a master check up is less important.
Epilogue: Chivalry not being dead, I accepted the seat in the bus, deciding not to dye my hair or get a Botox job but to capitalise on my new status as a junior senior citizen. After all, middle age is when your age starts to show around your middle. There is no old age. There is, as there always was, just you.
(The author is a telemedicine specialist and Chennai-based neurosurgeon. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Keywords: laughter therapy