With our population ageing at a rapid rate, perhaps it’s time to adapt the Asian example of societal inclusion of and respect for our elders?
I’m sitting in a park in Shanghai, shaded by willow trees, next to a pond full of blossoming water lilies. It’s late afternoon in mid-summer and the breeze over the pond is cool. The thrum of insects runs a duet with voices talking (loudly – it’s China after all), and tango music.
There’s a group of elderly men and women in a square, dancing the tango. They pivot and strut, some doing the slow lunge. Some with partners. Others, on their own; with one hand on their hip and the other out…tapping an invisible partner on the shoulder as they spin across the concrete.
The tempo shifts and grows faster, and one couple takes centre stage. They’re obviously the leaders of the group. They look like they’re in their sixties, but they’re moving faster than I thought they could. Hair slicked back and sunglasses on. The tango summer of ’69.
Another group of older adults move through the slower practice of Tai Chi quietly in a separate area of the park. Children mingle between them, parents push prams on the periphery and dog walkers side-step toddlers. Some seniors are sitting on the sideline, watching.
In another corner, where the exercise equipment is placed, there is a smaller group of seniors. They are taking turns on a range of machines. Some glide, some have a pulley system; there are others where you just stand and balance, or twist your waist. These are definitely not the outdoor gyms on Venice Beach. These are low-impact hydraulic machines – which were specially made for the aged.
As I’m watching these seniors get out and about, I’m contrasting this scene with the one back home in Sydney. Where mums in active wear promenade with prams, where dog lovers out-pace each other, where the grunts of boot campers and the sighs of corporates on a rushed lunch break can mingle with the laughter of lovers.
My visit to Shanghai was almost three years ago.
In our neighbouring countries, they’re already feeling the impact of an ageing population. I’m thinking more and more about it as I turn 40, and my mother sashays into her seventies. It started me thinking about why life as a senior citizen is so different in Asia compared to Australia.
The demographic of over 65-year olds will account for 25 percent of Australia’s projected population for 2042. And with one of the best health systems in the world, this means we are all going to live longer. Most people born in 2013 can expect to live between 80-84 years of age.
The question of how to tackle Australia’s growing ageing population is already on the political table, but our day-to-day social framework is oblivious to it. We are a hale and hearty nation, and we like to focus on this. But for all our strengths, we rarely plan for our own future ageing selves.
One of the reasons for this is because our seniors are often invisible.
Don’t get me wrong. In Australia, there is definitely a respect for the old. There’s a fondness and a warmth towards the elderly that is familial. However, outside of the family structure or the friendly nod to the old bloke doing his shopping, they are not seen as a current, constructive member of society.
It’s not a sports hero, an actor or a youthful idol adorning the walls. It’s Chinese Gandalf. Possibly after smoking weed, and gleefully hungry for stone fruit…
In my travels through China, Japan, South East Asia and India, the aged are very much a part of the visible social structure.
People work longer. It’s not uncommon to see a shop owner in Japan who is in their seventies. Or to see a farmer toiling in the fields at age 80+. Retirement is an option, but there’s also the belief that one’s expertise gets better with age. So an older person is seen as better in their chosen occupation in many ways.
Great infrastructure in a small land mass helps older people get around. In a place like Japan, seniors are able to commute across the country with comfort and safety. The accessible nature of the country allows them to be more visible. They’re not just stuck in their suburb. I was often surprised at how far they travelled to hike to a particular temple or to visit a flowering garden in their prefecture.
The elderly move in packs. It’s not uncommon to see groups of seniors in Asia on daily activities together – morning and night. Walking brazenly in their pyjamas, they trawl the suburbs for their morning and post-dinner jaunts, waving their arms and talking loudly, gangs of white-haired vagrants who are pro-tea. There’s strength in numbers.
Groups of elders are also asked for their opinion on matters of importance. Regardless of whether they are directly involved in the business or organisation in question, the younger generation seeks their advice (on what and what not to do), and there is a continued dialogue between the aged and the young.
And general society expects them to be contributing actively to their community, even if they aren’t working full time. So they’re expected to learn new things, even after they’ve stopped their career.
Then there’s the respect for elders. This is not exclusively an Asian trait, of course, but when you look at very basic stereotypes, the stock character of aging in most Western countries is the old man who’s lost his marbles, like Grandpa Simpson.
In China, however, a really really old dude is seen as a wise man. Many Chinese homes have a small statue of the popular God of Longevity. He’s depicted as an ancient bald man with a ridiculously large forehead, a long white beard that goes to his knees, leaning on a gnarled cane, clutching a pear whilst laughing hysterically. It’s not a sports hero, an actor or a youthful idol adorning the walls. It’s Chinese Gandalf. Possibly after smoking weed, and gleefully hungry for stone fruit…but you get my point.
Then there’s also the differences in the definitions of ageing and retirement in Australia.
For us, when we retire (which is increasingly further away), we’re expected to spend the kids’ inheritance by travelling, or relocate to an overseas hideout, milking the pension while trading currencies to live like royalty in a neighbouring island. (I’m sorry Bali, I really am.) It’s as if we are to no longer care about Australia, and, in a way, to give away our right to have an opinion about the country.
Added to this is our fear of ageing. Like America (where we get most of our media), we go beyond the fear of death and into an obsession about not aging. At all.
In Asia, your old age is a badge of respect, of veneration. People want to learn from your wealth of experience.
In Australia, your age means you’re past your prime and you have nothing of value to offer. Other than time-wasting questions about technology and the interwebs.
Also on The Big Smoke
Sure, it’s not realistic to expect Australians to suddenly adopt the existing Asian belief systems of filial piety. We have our own culture of independence and adventure we should not lose. And some arrangements are also sometimes impossible to replicate.
Where an elderly parent in Asia is more likely to live with their son or daughter, this type of arrangement is nearly impossible in a country as large as Australia, where children often leave their parents for work or study in urban centres. With such a large land mass, it can be very difficult to live close enough to have daily interaction. However, this engagement between elderly parents and children is changing.
These days, there are more grandparents with their grandkids in the park. Some are still working part-time to cover the costs of living in Sydney, and some have moved in with their children.
Exorbitant house prices, higher costs of living, a terrible public transport system and child-care costs have all made it a logical step for different generations to join forces.
By necessity, (I’m looking at you, childcare barons,) young families need grandparents or extended family to help raise the grandkids. Despite Australian social norms which dictate that they should be living quite separate lives at this stage, the reality is that they can’t. There’s simply no other choice.
But perhaps something positive will come from this forced change? As the elderly have a more purposeful engagement with the next generation, and a more active and visible part in society, by default, maybe they will have a more audible voice.
Look, we’re all going to be old one day.
We just don’t want to think about growing old.
We dismiss the complaints of the old man who tells us that his pension cannot cover both his utilities and his weekly meals, because we don’t want to be reminded that that old man is us in the future.
We don’t delve deeper into the fine print on development contracts for retirement villages, or campaign for nursing home regulations or question how our super will sustain us in 20 or 30 years.
We focus on the now. Our jobs and our daily mindfulness meditation.
Following this same path will land us silently sitting in the corner of a café while others dance the tango in a park.