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Don't keep them apart...

Eighty two year old Indrani sees no future ahead of her, the present gives her no happiness. So she lives in her past rewinding the tender days of her life in her mind.

A film of misery glided across her eyes, when I asked her about her present life. "At this stage of life what else have I got to do other than awaiting death?" she queries. " Not that anybody is unkind to me. But I feel that I belong to a different segment of society- to a by gone era! Society thinks that we are not capable of anything. They can go ahead without our existence".

Eighty year old Arnold, father of two and a grandfather of four is also quite worried as he had overheard a friend of his grandson saying "Is your grandpa still living? They are real trouble makers".

The world is rapidly changing. In such a changing world, living up to the rigours of the changing world is the main problem elders are confronted with. So Indrani's story may be the story of many across the world. Arnold's mental agony too cannot be his alone.

The feeling of 'belonging to a by gone era' often torment them. As a considerable number of people 'enter' the category of 'old' daily, an elder explosion is sweeping the world today.

The populations of most of the world's societies are ageing as a result of the decline in both birth and death rates. Death rates are declining as a result of people leading a proper lifestyle and improvement in healthcare facilities. Ironically, though they are given 'additional' years to live, they are given less reasons to live...

Though the situation is not the same everywhere, the experience elders fear most is getting dehumanizing looks from society. They never want them to be called 'Nakiya' 'Naki Gani', or grumpy old man behind their backs. Negative stereotypes always have a bad effect on them.

Though it is commonly believed that the level of one's intelligence declines as they grow old, now studies have revealed that mental faculties stay clear and sharp until very late in life.

Though they are said to be sexually inactive studies have proved otherwise. The common mistake people do is that putting all the elders into one distinct category based on the false assumption that all of them are sickly, incapable and inactive.

Ageing can be sociologically defined as the combination of biological, psychological and social processes that affect people as they grow older. Biological ageing refers to the physical body, psychological ageing refers to the mind and mental abilities and social ageing refers to culture, norms and values.

Biological ageing

Ageing is unrelenting. As a person grows old, he gradually loses his eye sight, the ability to hear, etc. It is a biological mandatory that begins with birth. But that can be recompensed by good health, proper diet and nutrition and a reasonable amount of exercise.

So for many people, the physical changes of ageing do not always prevent them from leading active, independent lives till they are very old. As some scientists say more and more people will be able to live relatively healthy lives until they reach their biological maximum if they lead a proper life style using the advances in medical technology.

Psychological ageing

The psychological effects of ageing has a lesser effect than physical ageing. What was initially believed was that things like memory, learning, intelligence, skills and motivation decline with age.

Thorough research into the psychology of ageing suggests a much more complicated process. Memory and learning ability, for example, do not appear to decline significantly until the late eighties.

Social ageing

Social ageing consists of norms, values and roles that are culturally associated with a particular chronological age. Ideas about social age differs from society to society, changing over time. The line of demarcation in Sri Lanka is sixty. Anyway on that day, they are not any different physically or mentally than the day before! So who is elderly and who is not is socially defined.

In traditional societies, extended family system highly favoured the elders. That family system is gradually dying and now most of the families are nuclear families where elders have no place.

Sometimes the trend is to keep elders with them or treat them when they are capable so that they can be baby sitters for their grand children. But once they become too feeble for any work they are being neglected.

The cultures which are obsessed with youthfulness are more likely to neglect their elders as they are less likely to have the high- tech skills so valued by young people.

However much physically fit they are, the age of retirement forces them to learn a 'new' role. Normally elders give up a comfortable role for one that is essentially devalued in society. Psychological problems of devaluation and depression is then unavoidable.

That is why elders need social support from their families, neighbours, friends etc. They can ease their mental agony. But if that person is cut off from work (retirement), from children, from spouse, personal trauma is even greater.

Future of the elderly

It seems that the efforts which have been taken to address the needs of the elderly is not at all sufficient. It is gradually becoming a social problem. Increasing number of elders without sufficient life- support systems is a huge problem to any country, particularly to a Third World country like Sri Lanka.

In fact petty prejudices against the elderly should be eliminated. So it is necessary to take steps to include them in the development process. Life support systems should be introduced to look into the needs of elders.

The common concept is that elders should leave work at the age of retirement (so that they can leave room for the younger generation). Anyway if they are given a few more years to work they can make a valuable contribution to the development process.

New programmes and projects should be introduced in which elders can participate as advisors or in some other effective way. On top of that, what they need is the love and kindness from the younger generation, so that they will feel they are not isolated or neglected.

****

The 1998 report of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) notes that the sixty-five and older population grew by about 9 million in 1998. By 2010, the elderly population will grow by 14.5 million; by 2050, 21 million.

The most rapid growth of the sixty five and older group will take place in the industrialized countries, where families have fewer children and people live longer than in developing countries. In the industrialized countries, the percentage of the population that is elderly grew from 8 per cent in 1950 to 14 per cent in 1998 and it is projected to reach 25 per cent by 2050.

After the middle of the century, the developing countries will follow suit, as they experience their own elder explosion.

(source: 'Introduction to Sociology' by Anthony Giddens et al (2003))

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