The young and old – staying connected
A viewpoint on how we need to give and take, and live in harmony.
BY: K V Veloo
I did not realise that I was growing old until a young lady to whom I was introduced at a function thought it was socially correct to address me as “uncle”. As though this was not enough, she heralded her companions throughout the evening to meet the “uncle”. My chances of being a little fresh with her were shattered. I thought this was too much. I had just crossed 55 and was in full control of my faculties. My ego was deflated. I had to admit, nevertheless, that I was growing old in the eyes of the young.
The following morning on arising from bed, I studied myself intensely in the mirror in the bathroom. It did not appear that I had aged except for a few strands of white hair taking root at the sides of my crown. My hair showed early signs of receding to the back but definitely not to the extent of creating a barren island on the top. I could still comb my hair with the aid of my faithful “Brylcreem”. The only defect, if any, is my belly button that seemed to have grown out of shape possibly because of the weight around my waistline, which had increased to 38. I have a few spare tyres to carry. No woman, however, had ever insinuated that my abdomen was an unwelcome impediment when doing a waltz with me.
I was at Parkway Parade one afternoon when I saw a group of young lads at a shop promoting exercise equipment. They were fascinated with a device that measured the heart-beat rate and they were comparing their heart-beat rates. Their average score was about 80. They were taken aback when I asked them if I could also check mine. It was 70. They could not believe it. They even went to the extent of slotting another 20-cent coin at their own expense into the machine to recheck my reading. “How come, you are old and can have a lower score? It reminded me of the 1950 hit song “Anything you can do, I can do better” from the movie “Annie get your gun.”
Our young are by tradition, culture and breed respectful to the old and are customarily filial to their parents. The young lady who addressed me as “uncle” is an example. I do not think it is her disposition to sideline the old as being staid and decrepit. It is something that is culture-bound. There is, however, a difference in being respectful to the old and viewing the old disparagingly as people intended for the scrap heap.
All of us will grow old. Some of us may, as we reach our 70s and 80s, become frail and sick. Still others may be bed-ridden and dependent on others. The optimistic part of growing old is that the overwhelming majority of old people (nearly 94%) are ambulant and well. They can take care of their activities of daily living. They lead socially useful lives and remain as contributing members of society. Many among them are educated, well-informed and affluent. They form a reservoir of talents, abilities and experience.
Growing old gracefully and in place are sometimes made difficult by attitudinal barriers that devalue old age. We are all aware of the myths and prejudices surrounding old age. It is sometimes referred to as “ageism”. Old people are regarded in the stereotype of a “spent force” and by implication unworthy and to be ostracised socially and economically.
What can we do?
If we want the young and society in general to look up to us as contributing and socially useful members, we need to take ownership of our image. We cannot remain on the backstage and expect others to fight our cause. We must take steps to remain physically and mentally fit and alert so that we can continue to live a normal life for as long as possible. This does not mean that we have to pump weights or work out strenuously at a gym competing with the young body builders or gear ourselves for competitive sports and athletics. It is a matter of engaging in regular keep-fit exercises that we enjoy and maintaining good health practices. This, of course calls for personal discipline. We do not to want to risk shrivelling on the vine too early in our ageing process. It is said that a person is as old as he thinks himself to be. One could learn much on pre-retirement planning, maintaining a socially active life and remaining connected with the community.
We must also remain socially active, engaged and connected with the community. It depends much on pursuing some interest or activity or sharing our abilities and experience with organisations of all kinds, not necessarily those related to social service organisations that help the poor, the handicapped and the disadvantaged. Opportunities for volunteering one’s services exist in humanitarian relief, community and civic organisations, social and correctional services, as well as religious, spiritual, educational, cultural and sports organisations. The National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) is a resource centre for advice and assistance to anyone who wishes to volunteer his or her services.(Click here for more information on NVPC.)
Connecting with the young
We need to make quality time for the young in order to bridge the so called “generation gap”. The old sometimes assume that the present generation of youth disregard parental authority and are not disciplined. We use this assumption to indict our youth. Each generation of youth has its share of problems of growing up. It is more difficult for our present generation of youth to grow up normally in a climate of fear of nuclear war, terrorism, depletion of the ozone layer and the environment, and the threat of pandemics, to name a few.
The approach to youth must be on the basis of our understanding of their sub-culture. This can best be achieved through intergenerational activities. Our problem is that we tend to find comfort among our own age group. Our leisure outside our family is often centred on age-segregated activities. There is nothing wrong in being a member of a mutual aid group or senior citizens club or passing our time with our peers at a community centre learning to do the “cha cha”, having monthly luncheons or just indulging in idle gossip at a coffee shop. We must also make time for activities involving youth.
There is no better way to put ourselves in a positive light than participating in or be spirited spectators of the activities of young people.
Understanding their music and dances
Not long ago, a friend and I went strolling after dinner. We were attracted to a discotheque within the hotel premises. We went in and before we could find a table, this friend of mine persuaded me to leave the discotheque helter-skelter. He argued that if he had stayed behind a little longer, he would have either become hearing-impaired or visually-handicapped. He had a cultural shock seeing young people gyrating to the din of swinging electric guitars. It reminded him of the “voodoo dance” performed by witch doctors in the jungles of Haiti. I could understand his concern of becoming hearing-impaired because of the blare but why fear of becoming visually-handicapped? It seemed the twinkling psychedelic and laser lighting (that are very necessary to provide a disco ambience) could adversely affect his eyes. He did not take me favourably when I protested that the convulsive gyrations to the brawling music of electric steel guitars are part and parcel of youth sub-culture. He thought they were all on designer drugs. No wonder young people look down on old people as being square, uninformed and dated.
We need to understand and comprehend their music and dances – the hard rock, heavy metal (like Mettalica, Nirvana and Guns & Roses) and its sub-genres, reggae (Bob Marley) hip-hop and rap. We cannot live by the nostalgic memories of the soothing ballads of Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra or Perry Como alone. When we were rocking to the music of Bill Haley and His Comets or those of Elvis Presley our parents had thought that we were crazy. We must not distance ourselves from youth just because we do not approve and appreciate their music, dances and lifestyles, which in reality do not often verge on loose morals or unabashed practices.
Some of us feel threatened with all the latest gadgets that float in the market. We do not understand them and, hence develop an inherent distaste or distrust for modern technology and assistive devices. I marvel at the young with their smart phones that seamlessly roam the Internet, take pictures, record music and even shoot films at a press of a button. I know some of my friends who have yet to purchase a PC. I am sorry for them because they are really missing countless hours of information and enjoyment that the Internet can give. Most of all, it helps one to link up and be connected with friends in any part of the world with speed and ease.
While we cannot keep up with the dexterity of the young in manipulating contemporary technical gadgets like hi-fi and home theatre systems, MP3 players, iPods, 3G mobile phones, laptops and PDAs, we must at least know what they are and be acquainted with them.
Not long ago, I was in a bus on my way home. It was half empty. Seated next to me was a retiree who was working hard at his mobile phone. Out of curiosity I asked him what he was trying to do. He said he was trying to send a message to a friend to meet him for lunch. He was rather frustrated that he could not get it right after so many attempts. I suggested that he used the predictive text input or the template if it was a one-liner. It was faster. He had not heard of such shortcuts even though he has had the hand phone for sometime. When I suggested that he could capture names of persons in the dictionary, he was terribly upset. He had not heard of the function of the dictionary in his mobile phone. No wonder the young label us has as cop-outs, wash-outs and drop-outs.
What the family can do?
If anything goes wrong with the social fabric of our society we tend to blame the family, the school and the Government. The family, no doubt is one of the basic social institutions responsible for the socialisation of a child. It is the first group in which a child lives and is essential to the formation of its social nature and the development of attitudes. It can play a healthy part in projecting the old as having residual potentials and abilities. Hence, how we, as parents view and regard our own parents and other old people will be deeply embedded in the child. It will reflect the child’s attitude to old people in later life.
In summary, most of us are concerned when we reach 50 or 55. We all like to age gracefully. This becomes difficult if society, especially the young, devalues old age. Old people become the butt of ageist or unsavoury remarks like “second childhood”, “dirty old man” and “sugar daddy” and worse.
We need to remove the fallacy rife among some quarters that the old are dependent, stagnant and immutable to change. The public will then accept us as individuals who possess desirable qualities that are an asset to the community to be utilised fully.
K V Veloo’s career that started in 1964 in Probation and Aftercare has spanned more than 35 years. During his stint in Government service, he worked passionately on programmes for the rehabilitation of offenders and drug addicts, transportation for disabled people and on socio-legal issues facing intellectually disabled people. He was the first president of the restructured and present Singapore Association of Social Workers (SASW). He helped the social work profession to gain inroads into the penal and correctional system. Some of his key achievements were the setting up of the Community Probation Service (CPS) in 1971 and the SANA (Aftercare) Counseling Service that became the model for similar schemes beyond Singapore. In 1973, he set up the first Prison Welfare Service with the aim of providing support and help to the families of prisoners.
(PHOTO CREDIT: MCYS. This article has been re-printed with permission from the Gerontological Society of Singapore’s newsletter.)