SINGAPORE - I have a fondness for Einstein. More and more as I grow older, or I should say old, Albert Einstein is my poster boy.
We rarely see a photograph of a young Einstein, when he was secretly grappling in the Swiss Patents Office with the outrageous idea of relativity. We mostly see pictures of an old Einstein, with his mop of white curly hair. There is a reason for this. In the collective mind of the world, Einstein is a kind of modern-day Lao Tzu, known beyond his genius for his wisdom and his quotes.
"I have reached an age when, if someone tells me to wear socks, I don't have to," he remarked, describing the positivity of old age with more aplomb than probably anyone in history.
Over these months of Covid-19, the elderly have been highlighted for their vulnerability before the virus, in many instances touchingly protected, but also horrifically dismissed. Instances are being revealed around the world of the aged being pushed to the margins.
Suddenly, whether we are ready for it or not, those of us who can no longer dance all night are apprehensively wondering where elderly ends and aged begins. Reaching this place is a shock. Only yesterday we were setting out to row down the river and today the ocean is visible ahead, and we wonder how we got here.
The strangest thing about this journey is that you still feel You, changeless and ageless in your essence. The same You who proudly dressed yourself for the first time without help, who cried outside the school gates when a parent was late to arrive, now awaits a great grandchild. Yet, nameless, formless, eternal, it is that same timeless You that silently witnesses each new event on the journey.
On another level, we know we are always changing, both physically and mentally, just as the scenery along the life we travel is always changing. The cells of our body are constantly replaced; every seven years we regularly create a new body and never notice, except when illness invades or wrinkles form.
We ignore the vast and complex cosmos within us that steadfastly goes about the business of keeping us alive, unaware that our inner body has a consciousness all its own. This intelligence functions independently, without our permission, making autonomous decisions. Yet, we live as if we control all things and will always be around.
In this part of the world, age is traditionally revered. Shou Xing, god of longevity, his forehead stretched to accommodate the immense wisdom of his many years, is esteemed among Chinese gods. Yet, even Shou Xing faces demotion in our modern times before the growing tide of ageism. Although the aged have always known when they are old in comparison to the young, the phenomenon of ageism as a form of discrimination seems especially characteristic to our epoch.
That dark universe of the collective mind, the Internet, with its relentless tide of advertising, TikTok, Twitter et al, aggressively markets youth. There is nothing wrong with youth. The young make the world go round, doing all the things the aged once did, and more.
Yet, it needs to be firmly pointed out that, apart from arthritis and creaking joints and whatever more we suffer, the aged have exclusive proprietorship of the world's most prized possession. Wisdom is the great gift age bestows upon us. Wisdom, the residue of life's hard battles and pains, cannot be acquired through any process but ageing. It is a gift worth waiting for.
In many ways, there has never been a better time to be old. Modern medicine must take a bow for its ability to temper infirmity. Yet, as much as this, it is the sheer vitality of our age with its search for new horizons and the shattering of boundaries, that has revitalised the concept of ageing. Whether landing on Mars or the Mariana Trench, the strange meeting of science and spirituality through quantum physics, or the redefining of gender and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, everything once thought immovable has suddenly become fluid.
So it is that we now say with ease, 80 is the new 60, or 70 is the new 50, or, you are as old as you feel. So it is that there are now more centurions in the world than has ever been recorded. Japan used to give a silver sake cup to anyone passing 100 years. The government has been forced to abandon this practice, because the number of people now reaching that landmark makes it too costly a nicety.
Reaching a great age does not necessarily mean a retreat into passivity. The world is full of incredible people. Jeanne Calment, supposedly the oldest person who ever lived, died at the age of 122 years. She was mentally sharp to the end of her life, and cognitive tests when she was 118 found her memory and language comparable to that of an 80 year old. Picasso in his 90s was still producing masterpieces, as was Matisse, as were artists Stravinsky, Doris Lessing and Pablo Casals and so many more. There are no rules to ageing, only exceptions.
Identity is also a fluid entity and the elderly should not be categorised as having uniform characteristics. I know a 96 year old who began to paint at 94, climbed six flights of stairs to her art class each week, and had a recent exhibition. British scientist James Lovelock, 101, creator of the evolutionary Gaia Theory, says he has never felt better than he does now. Natural historian David Attenborough will echo that. At this time, during Covid-19, France's oldest doctor, 98-year-old Christian Chenay, is still visiting a nearby retirement home to provide medical support for the inhabitants. Feisty 113-year-old Maria Branyas, Spain's oldest Covid-19 survivor, is calling for nothing less than a new world order in attitudes to the aged. In her recent Twitter debut, she says, "I am old, very old, but not an idiot. I do not look back. I only look forward."
It is simplistic to think all elderly lives have a silver lining. The high incidence of dementia and geriatric disease is well-known. We can never know what tomorrow brings, yet, if the genes hold out, and grace is with us, why not expect to follow Calment, Picasso, Lovelock and so many more? Nowadays, when a bright young thing asks how old I am, I reply I am between 50 and death, and let them make of that what they will.
Born and educated in London, Dr Meira Chand is the author of nine novels, whose themes examine the conflict of cultures and the search for identity.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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