By Zubeida Mustafa
In an article in these pages last week, Barbara Ellen (I wonder what’s her age) referred to a new study that said that we could end up living up to the age of 130. She expressed amazement at the upbeat nature of these reports.
She warned that the chances are that at 130 we will feel 130-years old and not 18. How right she is. For as a transplant surgeon from Germany once remarked, “The challenge is not to add years to life but to add life to years!”
It is a miracle of medical science that one can aspire to be 130 and still not be considered off one’s rockers. But the elixir of youth continues to evade the health scientists. Doctors can elongate your life. But they cannot make you young again. The sooner one accepts this truth the better it would be for his/her peace of mind.
A few decades ago, a person who crossed his sixtieth birthday was considered to be old. In those days the retirement age was 55, after which a person could go home and prepare to meet his Maker. Today, in recognition of the fact that people still have a lot of healthy living in them after 55, the retirement age in Pakistan has been increased to 60.
In the West, they have gone further and people are expected to call it a day at 65 and still look forward to a decade or two of active life. But can those extra years that one gets be put to good use?
The fact is that while age is measured in absolute terms in the number of years one has lived, being old or young is something relative.
A young mother of 28 was taken aback by the surprised reaction of the mother of a little girl who was the friend of her five-year-old daughter. After introductions, she was informed that her daughter had been telling her friend that her mother was really very old! Can you blame the child? After all 28 is a long way to go when you are five.
Conversely, the death of two colleagues in the women’s movement in Pakistan (Shehla Zia and Saniya Husain) and earlier a human rights activist (Maisoon Hussein), in their early fifties, appeared to me as their being snatched away at a very young age. But when my grandmother had died at the same age when I was ten, I had perceived her as being old.
This relativity does affect our attitudes towards age and life. If you are young at heart you will remain young, it is said by many who don’t want to grow old. They would rather look forward to reaching the ripe old age of 130! But the fact is that you cannot defy the physical (and to some extent the mental) process of ageing. You may slow it down somewhat but that, too, not indefinitely.
Hence the over eager health fanatics Ms Ellen talks about are in a way right in their craze. They are not all aspiring for the target of 130. Ask any of them and they’ll tell you that their aim is that till whatever age they live, they should be healthy [wealthy] and wise and not fit the profile Ms Ellen draws of old age.
Those who are walking and exercise buffs will vouch for their non-interest in longevity. For them it is more important that they are not laid up for five years after a stroke and before they make their exit. Who wants to be constrained by restrictions of all kinds to protect their unhealthy hearts from further strain.
What about those who huff and puff around because their lungs have been damaged by their smoking like a chimney. And all this at the ripe old age of 45 — the magic figure mentioned by Ms Ellen.
The pity is that many of us who claim that one is as young/old as one feels, do things which will ensure premature aging. They indulge in the luxury of eating, drinking and other excesses which are only the privilege of the youth. But they consider themselves to be 35 when they are 60!
The sensible ones are those who adjust their lifestyle to suit their biological age. It is nice if one remains cheerful and enthusiastic about living. But for a 63-year-old to do what a 36-year-old does is ridiculous. May be he suffers from dyslexia.