Growing old, not only for senior citizens but for all to ponder?

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Wong Soak Koon teases out the positives from a few essays depicting the struggles faced by seniors against the ravages of time.

Today it is not uncommon to have people say that the 80s or even, the 90s are the new 60s, perhaps even the 50s, if we want to stretch that hope further.

We are, after all, proud to have an an energetic, mentally alert 93-year-old prime minister. In the United States, Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to become Speaker of the House of Representatives, is no spring chicken either at 78. There are a number of such celebrity figures we can cite who both inspire and intrigue us by their energy, but what is ageing like for the average person?

An excruciatingly honest portrait of the challenges of growing old is detailed by Janet Frame in her short story titled “The Bath”. You would have to have a certain calm readiness to read it. Yet its truthfulness strikes a chord, waking us from the denials that many of us employ to stave off thinking about ageing. I remember an expat colleague of mine in the university who would jog religiously each evening, drizzle or shine, to maintain a youthful physique. Nothing wrong with that, of course, unless it feeds the myth that one can be young forever.

In “The Bath”, Janet Frame takes us through the thoughts and feelings of an elderly widow whose lonely battle with the simplest of daily acts – taking a bath – painfully evokes the tests of growing old: “getting in and out of the bath became such an effort that it was not possible to bathe every night nor even every week.”

Reading this at 70 myself, I learn a new compassion and can fully empathise with the narrator: “If I shout for help, she thought, no one would hear me. No one in the world will hear me. No one will know I am in the bath and can’t get out.” The narrator goes on to say that “in future a district nurse will have to come to attend to me. Submitting to that will be the last humiliation”.

For all of us, more so for senior citizens, one of the deepest fears is losing the independence of daily self-care. It is hard to change mindsets but perhaps it may be helpful if we ponder on the fact that, whether old or young, there may be spells in our lives when we need such care as when illness lays us low. Temporary as some of these occasions may be, it is still possible that they can help us to accept help with less pride and slowly adjust our sense of self-reliant dignity.

Indeed, in many areas of life, as we move into late middle age and beyond, it is time to reflect, not morbidly, but practically and philosophically, on the adjustments and adaptations we want to make so that life continues to be managed calmly, even joyfully. There is no one prescription that fits all in managing aging as we differ in terms of social class, racial and cultural values and other variants which make each individual unique.

In the introduction to her book, in which she interviews various women turning 50 and beyond, Carol Rountree offers us insights into how aging can mean new vistas and not simply closed doors. One of these doors is being involved with creative work.

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You may say that not all of us are artists, writers or sculptors. But should we not re-imagine “creativity” in a broader sense? Tending a garden, learning to bake bread, learning to use the computer, to play the guitar or the ukele, in fact any engaging new activity keeps the brain active and alert and rejuvenates the spirit. For many reasonably healthy seniors, volunteer work offers rich rewards, not financially but emotionally. Often such activities also mean socialising and take senior citizens out of their solitude when they desire company.

Of course, one of the blessings of age can be a contented embracing of periods of solitude which one learns to enjoy. We seniors are no longer afraid to admit to quiet times as we don’t need to parade ourselves as the most popular hostess or the ones most invited to parties and “happenings”.

In fact, I would say that even in youth, certainly in middle age, one should begin to learn the value of solitude, those quiet moments in which one senses who one really is. Today though, many fear just such moments; they avoid reflective quiet as if it were the plague, preferring instead a cacophony of social voices. Yet in that din, we forget what good friendships should mean.

Valuing friendships as we age, we may be more selective, but we are consistent and steadfast in keeping in touch. Perhaps the fact that we are retired, no longer on the treadmill or on the fast track means we have more time to care?

In a beautifully elegant essay titled “Monday, May 3rd, 1982” written on her seventieth birthday, the writer May Sarton paints a calmly joyful picture of ageing, and it may be a good balance to read this essay after you read the short story “The Bath”, which I mentioned earlier. May Sarton pays tribute to those long-time friends, some writers like herself, who inspired and continue to inspire her.

But she also mentions others, not well-known figures, like a trusted friend: “one of the blessings of the last five years, for she comes when I am away to take care of Tamas and Bramble, feels at peace in this house, she tells me, and makes it peaceful for me to know that she is in residence and all is well at home when I am off on poetry reading trips.”

How wonderful it is to have a trusted friend house-sit when we are away and feed our pets. I sense that this kind of bonding is reciprocal giving and receiving. Her friend finds peace in her home, so May Sarton herself must have offered much support to this friend over a five-year friendship.

Too many young people today are so caught up in competitive relationships in the office or the work world; they have no true friend and it would be hard for them to name even one person they can call upon in times of dire need. Friendships are developed over time, in forgiveness and forbearance, not just in fun and games.

Many old folks find themselves without deep friendships because they had not given time to cultivating good relationships when they were young. “My family is enough,” many will say. Of course, family members can be a mainstay but they do have their own lives. Some, even our own children, could have gone abroad to study or work and then decided not to return.

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Perhaps our sense of “family” should be extended to a more communal set-up, for example, to people we worship with in church, mosque, temple etc. Here too, one will likely be selective because one cannot expect deep friendships with the whole congregation. Finding a few sincere and caring people to build “community” with is already a blessing. Or, if you are not religious, some other venue may work for you but the impetus to build a caring group remains the same and should begin much earlier than in our silver years.

This does not mean that the elderly should not expect new friends. With little need to compete, with more self-acceptance and less defences, we are best placed to begin meaningful friendships with people of different ages.

But does this openness make seniors easy prey to predators who disguise themselves as friends? One reads, both in newspapers and in fiction, of lonely older folks being duped of their hard-earned money. If people have been wisely preparing for as full a life as possible in their silver years, then there is little likelihood of loneliness driving them to take the bait in a gullible way.

Hopefully, seniors will also welcome the wise counsel of tried and tested friends, even when these advisors are much younger. One of the lessons I have learnt, after long years of teaching, is that one has a lot to learn from the young, even from those we teach and mentor.

In this context, my encouragement to the young is that they give some time to socialising with seniors when the opportunity arises. There is a great deal of mutual enrichment to savour and much mutual knowledge to share when the young and senior citizens meet.

The hard lesson for seniors to learn is not to use time spent with the young to gripe and grumble. I overheard in a cafe, a young man saying, “Ya lor, now I don’t see my grandparents much-lah. Aiyoh, always complain, complain, stress man. I already got stress-mah.”

Besides the individual senior’s effort to manage old age, governments and even the private sector should play significant roles in easing life for senior citizens. Most countries today have a growing aging population and Malaysia is no exception.

In an insightful article in The Edge (27 March 2017), RB Bhattacharjee outlines the need for innovative public policies to aid senior citizens. Better healthcare for the older populace, innovative ways of helping seniors who are still able to work to find new ways of earning, and good community centres where young and old can meet are just some measures to take.

As senior citizens in the New Malaysia, we certainly hope that the new government will be proactive and will also encourage the private sector to contribute as corporate citizens to bettering the lives of our silver generation. Bhattacharjee quotes the alarming findings of a UNDP report which states that “90% of retirement fund contributors don’t have enough funds even for a simple lifestyle for five years after retiring”. It is thus important, Bhattacharjee adds, that economic thinking “integrate all segments of society into mutually supportive relationships” and not leave out senior citizens who are deemed less or no longer productive.

On the issue of funds and savings, I refer to yet another article in The Edge (3 April 2017) by Ong Shi Jie. Its focus is not on seniors but on younger folks, yet the lesson Ong puts forward is applicable to earners of all ages. Ong tells us rightly that it is isn’t so much a raise in monthly income or a hefty bonus that would make us more financially solid. It is how we use that increase. Money, after all, is like a drug; you get more, you use more.

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Ong states this succinctly: “the truth is, it is never enough. You cannot throw more money at a money problem. . . Think about it; the solution to a drug problem is not more drugs. Sure, it will provide an instant fix. But over the long term it will not reduce your dependency.”

How true indeed! Recently, we have seen too many kleptocrats not to agree that money can be an addiction. Thus, the wise, however young, should try to start disciplined saving for the silver season of life. Only kleptocrats must feel they don’t have to save since they merrily rob others.

Ageing is therefore affected both by public policies and the individual’s financial, mental and spiritual resources. As one ages, the desire to remain young waxes stronger in some individuals. But no one can stay the hands of Time. In today’s consumerist society, advertisements for numerous stay-young products make us feel that the signs of age can be kept off, but no one has found the Fountain of Youth.

Instead of this pursuit of youth, perhaps we can listen to the feminist critic Carolyn Heilbrun, who advises us to “avoid the temptations of the eternal youth purveyors, the sellers of unnatural thinnness and cosmetic surgery” and so gain in our silver years, the authenticity, the newfound vitality of self-acceptance.

To return to the short story, “The Bath”, with which I begin this essay, I would like to tease out the positives even in this tale of one elderly woman’s struggle with the ravages of time.

The tone is not all dismal. Even in the midst of a tiredness which makes her want to give up, the elderly woman character does not yield. She soldiers on, and Janet Frame shows us that life still calls to her elderly character in many small, but significant ways: “thinking of the cup of tea she would make when she gets home – the remains of liver and bacon – of her nephew in Christchurch who was coming with his wife and children for the school holidays, of her niece in the home expecting her third baby.” Sure, the risky climb into the bath, that symbol of fearful aging, is still there at home but she will not just lie down and succumb.

Perhaps I am a romantic, more than a cynic, while writing this essay. So I prefer to conclude with May Sarton’s beautifully crafted evocation of contentment and joy: “Such a peaceful, windless morning here for my seventieth birthday – the sea is pale blue, and although the field is still brown, it is dotted with daffodils at last. . . And I was awakened by the cardinal, who is back again with his two wives, and the raucous cry of the male pheasant. I lay there, breathing in spring, listening to the faint susurration of the waves and awfully glad to be alive.”

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Phua Kai Lit
Phua Kai Lit

I wrote something called “Ageing Gracefully and Successfully” and placed the link to it on my website. I hope that it will be useful/helpful to those who read it. Happy Holidays to all !

Available at :

phuakl.tripod.com