Every Wednesday I spend half a day teaching and the other half at my local town center, which is called a Yakuba. The Yakuba is the wizard of oz control center for everything that goes on in the city. Televesion broadcasts, publications, center for the board of education, event planning, etc. etc. etc. I usually just spend my time here studying and fleshing out plans for various short/long term goals over a few liters of instant coffee. This Wednesday, one of my supervisors told me to follow him to another room.
The room he took me to was the light control room for the town hall’s auditorium, and down below was a woman in aerobics spandex and a group of about 20 ojiisans and obaasans (grandfathers and grandmothers) sitting in chairs.
“Join?”, my supervisor asked me. Urgh… I was lazy and selfish, and didn’t really want to expose myself to the social awkwardness of doing self introductions and being the white guy in the room. I just wanted read books and leave when the clock hit 4:00 as usual. But he urged me. “Young power every day,” he said. “You need old power, too.”
So down I went, and for 2 hours or so we did aerobics. I had a very different experience than I had expected (which is usually what happens when you overcome your shyness/unwillingness to participate in society) and it was really quite fun playing with them. I imagine most of them were probably the grandparents of my students, and I recognized a few faces in the crowd.
They were all probably 60 years old and older, but in many ways, the group functioned not much differently from what you see from kids in primary school. They were all fully engaged mimicking the little hand and feet dances done by the aerobics instructor to the music of her boombox, doing things in their own little ways that they had been doing since they were little kids. Laughing, smiling. They had so much energy. Socks off, sitting on the ground playing rock paper scissors. Jumping around the room hitting each other with inflatable pillows in a pillowfight dance. They were so healthy and are just mentally “there.” Many of them were far more flexible than me, and I’m 24!
Their liveliness doesn’t have much to do with diet or advanced medicines (Japan’s hospitals are actually quite old-fashioned). What I believe to be the real contributors to their health and happiness is their active lifestyles and their mental attitudes toward life. We know these things are good in the West as well, but it seems that so often we end up living differently from what we know to be good. Below, I have listed 3 things that I believe to be the biggest contributors to health in old age, all of which the Japanese embody fully.
- Community: Many people in their 60’s begin to retire from their jobs, but this does not have to be a retirement from society. The body does degrade as the years go on, but it is the dropouts from society that I would consider to be responsible for 99.999% of most people’s degradation in the later parts of their lives. We shun dropping out of high school and use the term “dropout” interchangeably with “failure”, yet it has become acceptable in America for people to get old and completely drop out of society after retiring, just sort of put around by themselves or with their spouse, watching TV program after TV program until they finally kick the bucket. Starting from the time we enter pre-school, there is always a fear of playing with others within us that we must continually overcome every day of our lives. Old people who retire from society are just using old age to allow themselves an excuse to finally stop having to stand up to their social anxieties and hide under a comfort rock. Our jobs take up a big part of our lives and may indeed be the only outlet we have to society, but when when we decide to call it quits at the work scene, this is a time of new opportunity where you can begin devoting your time to plugging in in other ways. Obviously, we do not have the energy to spin as many plates as we had been spinnig earlier in our lives, this is why we are retiring in the first place. In this time though, we can just focus on just a few simple things, and they can really become our raison d’être, however simple they may seem.I really admire the old people in Japan for all the things they take part in. All the religious holidays and local events, they’re out there, smiling and laughing with their friend as they’d been doing their whole lives (I imagine some of these friends have actually been their friends since they were kids; I’ve met a lot of old people that have lived here since they were born). They are at all their grandchildren’s school events throughout the year, even if they have to be wheeled in on a chair. There are all sorts of little classes in the community that I’ve attended, and as sure as the sun rises in the morning, they are always filled with the local ojiisans and obasans.
- New Skills: While I was in Okayama a few weeks ago for Hadaka Matsuri, I was drawn into an antique store hidden along a side street. There were antiques probably hundreds of years old, and in the back was an old man smiling in a chair with a little fluffy dog by his side. We talked for a while, he was really cheery and spoke whatever pieces of English he knew to me when he could. He asked me to guess how old he was. “29!”, I said. He let out a loud hearty laugh, and said no. He was 103!!! Incredible. Despite his age, he told me that he had just started learning English a few years ago. He’d never really given it a good try, but he figured it was never too late to start. Just thinking of this guy’s happiness while I’m writing this makes me tear up for some reason.Though his age was exceptional, the attitude possessed by this cheery little guy in Okayama is no anomaly. In Japan, the older years of one’s life are a time to take up new hobbies and learn things that you’d never really had the time to do earlier in life. A week ago, my friend from Hawaii held a culture class on the weekend where she taught people how to cook a Hawaiian desert and do a hula dance. The participants: all obaasans. Another experience: When I first got here, I discovered that an artist community nearby was teaching classes on pottery and clay molding. Again, aside from me and a few others, mostly ojiisans and obaasans. They never see it as too late to learn anything in life, no matter how monumental the task at hand might seem.
One of my neighboors pulled me into her house the other day to ask me a question about her computer. Beside it she had a stack of internet/computer how-to printouts the size of a phonebook painted with ballpen and highlighter marks. She told me that she wanted to learn how to learn to use the internet. The biggest challenge for old people all over the world: computers– And she was doing it!
- Continued Responsibility: Most of the people in the Japanese boondocks are pretty-self sufficient, and from what I’ve seen, it seems that they spend most of their days just maintaining their homes. Their houses are always incredibly clean, and you can tell from the beauty of their gardens just how much time and care they put into keeping them beautiful. These tasks require physical and mental strengths to accomplish, but they never pass these taks on to others to do for them. Effort resides throughout their entire lives.
Too often in the West we see people’s relatives taking away all of these “burdens” from peoples lives and paying other people to do it for them. We believe that the elderly have had their share of strain in life and that old age is a time for them to take a rest. What we are really doing though is taking away the joy of life and the external demand that these people keep a sense of form and dignity required to function and enjoy life.
There was a psychology experiment talked about in Psychology class I attended back in my University days that relates to this. In a nursery home, randomly selected residents were given plants t take care of. Two other groups were assigned randomly, one who also had a plant but had a nursery home employee doing all the necessary care for it, and one in which residents received no plant at all. The experiment showed that those who had a plant to care for themselves became happier and outlived those without the simple responsibility. You can find a short description of the experiment here:
When babies are growing up, we know that it is essential to have them experience and try things themselves rather than doing everything for them. It is detrimental to their growth into happy and functional human beings. We all know this. But again, we collectively posesses so many “agist” double standards, and seem to hold that the fundamental principles that apply to human beings throughout their entire lives just seem to stop being relevant to people over 60. There is no magic number where you’re finally old and have the excuse to do nothing in life. Growing old and decrepit is a choice. We have the decision to take challenges and live fulfilling lives or to give into weakness and degenerate into hopeless sponges. What do you have to loose.
Here’s a good article that I stumbled upon today that is along the same lines of this topic:
I think there are people in the West that do share the mindset of staying plugged in and learning new things even when they’re older. There are many people in academia well into their 80s who still attend seminars, ask questions, go to meetings, and do field research. However, extending the idea that the mind doesn’t rot with age is particularly difficult when a lot of people build their self worth around their career instead of around knowledge and the community. These things inherently exist in academia and also in some religious communities in the West. How can we extend this idea to the general population? A person of any age can feel useless and “old” if everyone around them gives up on them. How do you change the mindset of millions?
As always, thank you for sharing your experiences. They are always enlightening.