Growing old is a privilege

by Dr. Philip S. Chua.
January 31, 2011
Quite often, people complain about growing old. They say they hate getting up there in age and living with the aches and pain of arthritis, diminished agility and dexterity, a more limited mobility, and varying degrees of impairment of vision, hearing and memory.

The picture portrayed above is, in general, and invariably, a description of what all of us, sooner or later, will face as we get nearer midlife, and more so as we sail through the sunset of our life. As a cardiac surgeon, I feel that as long as one does not have a serious heart ailment, severely complicated illnesses, or cancer, the changes our body and mind undergo as we grow older are as natural and “normal’ as life itself. The cycle from birth to death is a predestination none of us can escape from. In between those years, depending on our genes, and more so on our lifestyle, on how we live, our health and longevity will vary accordingly.

In 1950-1955, global life expectancy at birth was estimated to be 46. This had risen to 65 in 2000-2005, and is supposed to reach 75 in 2045-2050. In well-developed countries, this rise in longevity is predicted to increase to 82 years by mid-century, while among less developed nations where life expectancy is under 50 years today, the projection is 66 by 2045-2050.

In the United States, there are about 36 million who are 65 and older. By 2050, it will be about 87 million. One in 10,000 people lives to be 100. In 2000, there were about an average of 75,000 centenarians, and this is expected to go up to 274,000 in 2025.

The life expectancy today of various races in the USA are as follows: Asian-American, 84.9; North Americans, 79; Middle America, 77.9; Low-income whites in Appalachia, Mississippi Valley, 75; Black Middle Americans, 72.9; Western American Indians, 72.7; Southern low-income rural blacks, 71.2; and, high-risk urban blacks, 71.1 years. By State, Hawaii leads the nation with the longest life expectancy of 80, and Hawaiian women at 83.2. Minnesota follows at 78.8 and Utah at 78.7.

In Tomigusuku City, Japan, a report shows that in year 2000, women lived to 89.2 years and men, to about 82, and in Wara Village of Gifu Prefecture, men lived up to 80.6 years. Besides genetic as a factor, our diet, exercise, and lifestyle as a whole, most significantly determine our health and longevity.

With old age comes the signs and symptoms of normal wear and tear of any machine, and the human body is one machine that is no exception. As such, the immense tribulation that is inherent with growing old poses great limitations on the person, physically, psychologically, and socially. How the individual copes up with all these difficulties depends on the lifestyle he/she has lived, his/her philosophy and attitude in life. At 92, my mother still watches her diet and, about five years ago, has replaced her decades of one-hour regimented walking with her daily home video-guided (Leslie Samsone’s Walk by the Pound) exercises.

Alphonse Karr put it eloquently when he wrote “Some people are always grumbling because roses have thorns; I am thankful that thorns have roses.” Seeing only the hole in a donut, missing the ring of bread around it, or a glass as half-full and not as half-empty, defines a person’s point of view and outlook in life.

However challenging and often times frustrating growing older might be, the blessing of a long and fairly healthy life is a privilege. While getting old is a problem, growing old is a solution, in spite of all the aches and pains that come with the package. Life is tough, and more especially so for the seniors. Growing old is, indeed, not for sissies or the faint of heart.

But, let’s be realistic and face it, we’ve got only one other option. That option is to stop aging. And the only way to achieve that alternative is to die young. Not a palatable or a more attractive alternative, indeed. Since we cannot control and direct the winds in our voyage through this sometimes harsh ocean of life, we can at least, to quote a wise man, “adjust our sails,” and find happiness and peace during our journey and wherever fate takes us.

Living to the fullest with all our faculties and abilities to help ourselves, and be able to continue enjoying, laughing and sharing our wisdom with, and helping guide our children, grandchildren, great grandkids, and friends, making a positive difference in our society, smelling the flowers along the way, and savoring this magnificently wonderful world of ours (in spite of all man-induced imperfections and calamities), are, indeed, a sacred privilege. It is a blessing we should all look forward to with an upbeat frame of mind, and one to be truly grateful for. After all, not everyone is granted and blessed with this privilege.
So, as we enjoy the youth of our life, let’s lead a healthy lifestyle, show compassion for our less privileged fellowmen, and set good examples for our children to emulate. As years fly by, let us relish each day to the hilt, as if each day would be our last, and at the same time, let us pray for a life of good health, love, happiness, peace, and the privilege of growing old to enjoy them.

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