Having been born after my parents had immigrated to Canada, I have had limited contact with the elderly and I plainly admit that the rare contact that I did have was never pleasant. The few occasions in which my parents persuaded me to volunteer with seniors were not what I would call “pleasurable” as they always consisted of elderly people complaining about being old. Quite frankly, I can’t even say I enjoyed watching them remove their dentures to clean them, among other habits. The result was that as a young child, I was horrified at the prospect of “old age” and “aging”.
I am not alone in experiencing such horror. One of the illuminating moments in Siddhartha Gautama’s life (before he became the Buddha) was that he witnessed old age for the first time and was disturbed. His observation was that the coming of old age destroyed the prime of one’s life and all the beauty, strength, and energy associated with youthfulness. And what was worse was that this “problem” would catch up to anyone who did not die prematurely.
The horror of witnessing poverty, sickness, old age, and death for the first time ultimately led to the establishment of the Four Noble Truths. For those unfamiliar with Buddhist teaching, the first Noble Truth states that all that is associated with the individual is suffering. The second Noble Truth states that all suffering is caused by human desire, especially in wanting impermanent things to be permanent. Wishing to avoid old age, then, is high on the list of causes of human suffering.
Now, this conclusion may seem out of place considering that many oriental religious traditions insist on the reverence and even celebration of old age. The old are valued for their experience and appreciated for lives well lived. In fact, such high status is given to the elderly in all parts of the world except for modern-day North America: North Americans have developed the unfortunate tendency to set aside the elderly once they lose their autonomy and productivity. This is not to say that this is common practice or that it is exclusive to North America. All the same, it is undeniable that in North America, the elderly are generally viewed as burdens a society that puts great emphasis on fast-paced, efficient, and “beautiful” living.
This is where my enlightening experience comes in. Last summer I spent two months with the elderly in Europe, and I learned that old age is not limited to negatives–in fact, it has numerous, highly positive qualities. My grandparents, though old, are still full of life. One of my most vivid memories of my grandparents is their lively sense of humour. On the day of their 55th wedding anniversary, my grandpa was the first to get dressed up and get ready to go to mass, and my grandma enthusiastically complimented him by saying that he looked so good that all the 50 year olds would be checking him out. Who says that the fun ends when you get old?
My grandpa, who is deaf and has severe restrictions to his locomotion, rarely leaves home; yet anyone who has the fortune of communicating with him realizes that he has an unparalleled sense of humour. And, perhaps more importantly, he is full of valuable wisdom that comes from experience–he had fought in World War II, been married and had six kids, traveled the world, and now has great grandchildren. Few of my friends have that sort of experience and have as many good stories to tell as my grandpa does.
In contrast, my grandma, about nine years younger than my grandpa, seems to be only 50 because of her energy level. When my grandma is not at home working in her garden or taking care of her great grandchildren, she is off to various meetings and visits and is quite literally always doing something. Certainly, she has her medical problems that come with old age, and she even has those dentures I dreaded, but I learned that what is more important is that she takes all the downsides of aging in stride and often jokes about them.
I went out for coffee once with my grandma and her “Siberaczki” (friends of hers that were likewise shipped off to Siberia during WWII) and they were all talking about the latest hip broken or what part of their husband’s intestinal system failed the week before–but it was all taken in such light tone that it was as if I was with my friends chatting about the latest movie or what our boyfriend/husband did the week before.
This is what got me thinking. I came to the conclusion that yes, Buddha is right that old age slows down a lot of processes, making our lives a bit more painful and slower paced. But at the same time, it’s the quality of life lived that determines how both young and old perceive old age. If I was stowed away in a home away from the people and things I love, I don’t think I would be happy either, so I can’t blame the seniors I visit these days for being bitter. Fortunately, the very structure of certain societies allow for graceful aging; societies in which seniors are encouraged to live autonomously and actively instead of being set aside and forgotten. The benefit of happy seniors is twofold and in many ways invaluable–we no longer need to fear aging, and the elderly can contribute back to society.
Buddha also taught that old age does not have to be the last tragic step before death, and death does not have to be frightening. Whichever tradition you follow, whether it be Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, or whatever, remember that these are the people–the elderly–who gave us the lives that we have today. Next time you have some time to spare on a weekend, I encourage you, visit a senior’s home. You never know, you might learn something new. And you might make a friend.