The elderly have a right to work, play and go wrong in their own way — that's what keeps them young, says a busy man of seventy
Samuel R. LaycockApril221961
A LIVELIER LIFE FOR THE AGED
The elderly have a right to work, play and go wrong in their own way — that's what keeps them young, says a busy man of seventy
Samuel R. Laycock
EIGHT YEARS AGO, at sixty-two, I retired from my position as dean of the faculty of education at the University of Saskatchewan and since then I've kept almost as busy as I've ever been.
In those eight years I've written five books, given many talks over the CBC, lectured at three university summer schools, held down a part-time job at the University of British Columbia, made two trips to Europe, lived a full and satisfying social life, and pursued my hobby of color photography. I’ve also found time to have—and overcome—a heart attack.
All this I recount not to advertise my accomplishments, but simply to establish my right to say this:
We need to develop a new' approach, a new attitude toward the aged and a new' concept of how life should be lived after retirement. The young people w'ho, given time, will one day be old themselves need a new approach and attitude—and so do the old people themselves.
We must stop segregating the old. We must stop shutting them out of life. Most of all, we have to stop depriving them of the right to work and to be paid for their work.
In 1951, when the last complete census was taken, there were 1,086,000 Canadians over sixty-five. That is, one of every thirteen Canadians was over the age w'e usually associate with retirement.
In the years ahead, this proportion will increase in step with the rise in our life expec-
tancy. Since 1900, the life expectancy of the Canadian male has risen from forty-eight to sixty-eight years, and of the female from fiftyone to seventy-two years. This trend is going to continue; already medical science is predicting that within the near future many will live to be a hundred.
This is one reason why the kind of life we provide for our old people—and they provide for themselves—is becoming more important all the time.
Our neglect of the aged is barbaric. 1 don’t say this because of the inadequacy of their pensions or their housing. That's another story. I’m speaking of the neglect that lets them—often forces them—to live stunted, aimless, and frustrating lives.
Many of the aged have intellectual resources, knowledge, and experience that would allow them to live rich and satisfying lives if we only wouldn't write them off as finished at sixty-five.
In some cases, the old themselves are to blame for their isolation. The dictionary meaning of “to retire" is “to withdraw" and too many of our older people do withdraw from life when they could still participate in it.
From the summit of seventy, which I reached on March 7, here are some observations I wish to make:
■ We place far too much emphasis on age itself, using it as a too rigid standard for measuring a man's
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A livelier life for the aged
continued from page 23
Many old people are bores because we deprive them of activity
ability to continue his working days.
■ Fvcry human needs to do things, make things, accomplish things, and this applies even to people of ninety if they’re not senile. That is why we must devise ways to keep our old people working.
■ Many old people are bores who talk constantly about the past, but often this is so only because we deprive them of any present activity they can talk about.
■ Age differences should not be looked upon as a barrier to friendship. Old people need young friends and can be worthy of them. For their part, the young should realize that older men and women can be interesting, even stimulating, companions.
■ And, to touch upon a larger and more fundamental aspect of the problem, we need to evolve an educational system that will bring people to maturity with a rich backlog of interests and a desire and ability to keep learning. Then, when they do retire from their lifelong jobs, they will have interests to sustain them in old age; they will even then do creative things they never had time to do when they were tied to their work routine.
This problem of retirement is essentially a new one; it hardly existed sixty years ago when 1 was a child. I lived then in the farming area of Hastings County. Ontario. The farmers 1 knew didn’t retire; they simply turned the farm over to a son and lived in a three-generation household. The farmer kept working—doing chores — and so remained a part of the life around him.
In the nearby village of Marmora, the small storekeeper didn't retire either. His son took over the business but he himself went to the store every day to help out and so, like the old farmer, he had a place in life.
Now most people work for large industrial corporations or governments where there is a fixed retirement age. At sixtyfour a man may be performing competently in his job and may even be at the peak of his powers. But the day he reaches sixty-five he’s given a gold watch and sent home to die. One day he is considered useful; the next, useless.
Such abrupt and arbitrary dismissal on the sole grounds of the number of years a man has lived is foolish. Obviously, people do not age at a uniform rate, either physically or mentally. Two men of the same age may have aged quite differently in every respect. Nor in one man is the aging process uniform: at fifty he may have a sixty-year-old heart, a fortyyear-old nervous system, and eyesight as good as it was at thirty.
In a study reported by the National Committee on Aging, in 1959 in New York, personnel directors from a large number of companies with a fixed retirement age said that two thirds to three quarters of all who retired from their firms were capable of continuing work.
To assure ourselves that people are not finished at sixty-five we need only look at some of the famous people who have kept going long after that. Fleanor Roosevelt is seventy-seven and Konrad Adenauer is eighty-five. Louis St. Laurent was still prime minister when he received his first old-age pension cheque. Winston Churchill was sixty-five when he assumed the leadership of Britain in World War II and seventy-six when he triumphantly returned as prime minister. Our own
prime minister, John Diefenbaker, is sixty-five.
But, some may argue, these are exceptional people, engaged in intellectual pursuits. True, yet workers do not automatically become useless at sixty-five either. This was proved during the last war when many retired workers went back into industry and compiled safety and reliability records superior to those of younger workers.
It is obviously true that physical and mental impairment may and does occur in older people. But neither are the young immune from such handicaps. In both cases, those afflicted have to adjust their lives accordingly, but they need not stop living. In my own case, since recovering from a heart attack in 1959 I've resumed my former active life — although I am careful to sec that I get sufficient rest.
Medical men are convinced that the deterioration of older people is more often the result of psychological factors than of the physical process of aging. The large number of people over sixty-five who are confined to mental hospitals could be drastically reduced if older people were given a chance to lead purposeful lives.
The Soviet Union offers a lead
We need to overhaul our retirement practices to give older people a chance to continue at their jobs, or at steppeddown jobs, or part-time jobs. For others we should create new jobs. Perhaps one way to do this is to develop home industries among the aged.
In any case, we ought to be able to provide jobs for all older people who want to work and are capable of working. In the Soviet Union the aged apparently are given useful work to do. I he grandmothers, for instance, run the creches — and they have a grand time. They're important.
The aged should be paid for their work because money is one of the most important forms of recognition in our society. Offering a retired person half what an unretired person would get for the same job is an affront to human dignity, but this is often done because the older person has no bargaining power.
Recognition is important to everyone, regardless of age. Children learn that it is better to gain recognition by being naughty, a nuisance, or even delinquent than to have no recognition at all. Old people learn this lesson, too. Often, they are forced to magnify their aches and pains, to be crotchety or over-sensitive to gain attention.
Work can also give old people a sense of achievement and something to talk about other than the past.
This is what Dr. Halbert Dunn, of the U. S. Department of Health, F.ducation. and Welfare, had in mind when he said: “In general the older person is respected for what he was rather than for what he is. Yet the foundation on which personal dignity rests is respect for what one is. Personal dignity requires that one live in the present and for the future and not in the past. Dignity departs when one is tucked into the protected niche of inactivity until one dies.”
I cherish my memories of the past but 1 refuse to live in the past. I can't abide those older people who constantly talk about the “good old days” because, for one thing, I don’t think they were so good. When 1 board a jet to fly from Vancouver to Toronto in four hours 1 experience no yearning at all for the days of my childhood when we had no airplanes.
This June will mark the fiftieth anniversary of my graduation from the University of Toronto but I won’t be attending the class reunion. I’m too busy with my present life and plans for the future to enjoy any twinges of nostalgia a class reunion might bring on.
One of the greatest dreads of older people is loneliness, and almost everything conspires to isolate them and to make this dread a reality.
Most of our friendships or relationships of any sort, except those of the family, are gained through our work. The day we stop work we are likely to lose touch with our fellow employees, our employers, clients, or customers. If an older person wishes to preserve his mental health he must find new friends through new work, community service, or recreation.
We contribute to the loneliness of the
old by ignoring them as friends and forcing them to seek friendship only among their contemporaries.
Old people need the stimulation of association with young adults, adolescents, and children. They shouldn’t be simply tolerated or patronized by the young; they should be accepted as genuine friends on their own merits because they can contribute much to a friendship.
One man 1 will always remember as one of my first and finest teachers was an elderly farmer who, when I was a boy of nine, used to spend hours with me discussing theology and philosophy. Even then I was interested in these subjects and 1 was an eager listener. We hail wonderful times together. We were true friends.
As a bachelor, 1 find loneliness one of my greatest problems. I have done much to overcome it by finding friends of all ages. I have steadfastly refused to be segregated from the young or to accept age as the common ground on which friendships are built. Five of my closest friends are in their twenties and our friendships arc based on common interests. Another of my best friends is seventy, a retired lawyer who went to school with me.
My experience convinces me that one can have friends in any age group if one is genuinely interested in the other person and is a good listener.
A sense of independence—freedom to order one’s own life and make one’s own decisions—is a prized possession of all adults. Too often old people are robbed of it by well-meaning sons and daughters who boss their lives.
It is one of the prerogatives of an adult to be able to do foolish things—to stay up too late, to smoke or drink too much, to make foolish purchases or un-
wise decisions. Sons and daughters should not be over-protective and deny older people the luxury of making their own mistakes.
Only too often older people become the victims of the indifference, the convenience, or even the good intentions of their families. Some arc forced to abandon their homes and live with their children even when this is not necessary and when they’d be better off living alone. Where the aged must live with their married sons or daughters, every effort should be made to help them retain their independence; at least they should have a room of their own and a real say in ordering their lives.
Almost everyone lias some skill
Apart from work, there are two other outlets through which the older person may enrich his life: community service and creative recreation.
Through community service the older person can gain recognition, a sense of achievement and usefulness, as well as new friends—in fact, almost every form of remuneration but money. And almost everyone has some skill or ability — even if it is only the ability to lick stamps and address envelopes—that can be of service to church, health, welfare, or community organizations.
Some branches of the Canadian Mental Health Association have shown the way by using retired people as volunteer workers, doing mailing or mimeographing, or packaging Christmas gifts for patients in mental hospitals.
Much more could be done to enlist older people in such work. Churches, for example, should take a census of their older members to discover and list their abilities and then match these against the
needs of the church or other groups in the community. Also we should provide adult education courses to train older people for volunteer service.
To be really worth while, recreation should be creative. Watching television is not enough. Nor is it sufficient for the inmates of a home for the aged simply to be entertained by, say, a visiting choir. Older people must be encouraged to participate in planning and providing their own recreation. In most cities, adult education courses offer training in a wide range of hobbies from photography to lapidary work; older people should be persuaded to seize such opportunities to learn new skills or develop new interests.
As one who has spent a lifetime in the field of education, I suppose it is natural for me to believe that education is the key to solving the problems of the aged.
Indeed, a basic reason for the half-life so many older people live is that their early education has failed them. The knowledge and skills they learned fifty years ago are not by any stretch of the imagination adequate for them to function today either as productive citizens in the world of work or as intelligent citizens in solving community problems. For that matter, we are not even certain that the body of knowledge we are now teaching children will be useful to them as citizens of Canada in 1980 or 2000.
The most important phase of our education takes place in the elementary and the high school. It’s my contention that our present education system turns out people whose education is finished on graduation because it does not inculcate in them a desire or an ability to continue to learn. Thus, so many older people arc at a loss to develop new interests when their old interests—chiefly their workare taken from them.
The first thing we must do, then, is to fashion an education system that will produce people who will have a desire and an ability to continue to learn.
Beyond this, there are specific types of education bearing more directly on the problems of the aged that could be of great value.
Young people need to be educated so that they will show concern not only with the economic needs of the aged, such as pensions and housing, but also with their emotional needs as I have attempted to outline them here. They must learn not only to respect their elders, but to understand them. This, in turn, should serve as a course of preparation for their own old age.
Also, if we are to have more flexible retirement policies, it is important, in these days of rapid change, to provide inservice training for older as well as young workers to help them keep their knowledge and skills up-to-date. Certainly older people must deserve to be kept in their jobs. Employers and education agencies must provide education that will help them retain their usefulness.
Finally, as 1 have tried to indicate, we must encourage older people to take advantage of those opportunities for learning new skills, new hobbies, and new interests that are already provided by provincial departments of education, by university extension services, by local school boards and the public libraries.
Medical science has succeeded in adding years to our lives. Now we must add life to our years. This we can do through a well-planned program about aging, for those who are aging, and for the aged as well as through an education in our public sthools that gives its graduates an eager desire to continue learning and a backlog of rich interests to pursue. ★
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