Bernardo M. Villegas
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Living Long and Happy Lives (Part 1-3)

          Modesty aside, at age 81 I think I have stronger immunity against COVID-19 than many people I know in their fifties or sixties who have been smoking or drinking heavily, sleeping only six hours a day on the average and indulging in unhealthy diets.  I have good genes (my mother lived up to 102 years of age).  I have tried to live a healthy life style at least for the last twenty years of my life.  That is why I felt aggrieved when under the General Community Quarantine (GCQ), I could not move as freely as those below 60 years of age.  I really think there has been no scientific foundation for the classification of people by age for purposes of the various stages of quarantine under the global pandemic.  I was glad to learn that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had declared that 65 years of age is still considered young .  According to new research done, human age is now divided as follows: 0 to 17 years of age: underage; 18 to 65 years of age:  youth/young individuals; 66 to 79: middle aged; 80 to 99 years old: elderly/senior; and 100+ years of age: long-lived senior.

         In fact, medical research also has shown that the most dangerous health-related threats to life occur during the age range of 70 to 80.  If one survives this age range, the probability of his living much longer is quite high.  We are seeing this in Japan where more and more people, especially women, are living beyond 100 years.  I recently read a review of a book by an economist and a management expert, respectively, Andrew J Scott and Lynda Gatton.  The former is professor of economics at London Business School and a consulting scholar at Stanford university’s Centre on Longevity, and the latter is a professor of management practice at the London Business School. They wrote “The New Long Life: A Framework for Flourishing in a Changing World.”  Their previous work, “The 100-Year Life” provided very valuable insights into the phenomenon of increased longevity.  The authors have exploded the myth of the so-called “three-stage life.”  Although speaking of three stages of life made sense before more and more people are able to live up to their eighties and beyond, today these three stages hardly make sense. 

         When fewer people lived beyond their sixties, the first stage was traditionally spent growing up and getting educated.  The second involved working in an occupation or profession, earning money and starting a family.  The third, usually at the start of their sixties, was devoted to what then was called retirement.  Today, the average life expectancy of Filipinos is 71.16 years (2019).  The Filipino female lives on the average to 75.39 years as compared to the male life expectancy of 67.12 years.  Comparative figures in more developed countries such as Japan and most Western European countries are beyond 80 years of age.  As Scott and Gatton wrote in their books, the three-stage life generally worked in the old days when life expectancy was shorter.  It allowed many to support a family, buy a house and look forward to a pension.  Today, relatively fewer young people can afford to purchase a house.  Many of the elderly, even in advanced countries like the United States, do not have adequate pensions.  It is clear that the three-stage life has broken down.

         Governments, realising this change, are raising retirement age from 65 to 70.  Unfortunately, the majority of employers are acting as though the three-stage life is still applicable to the present generations.   In the Philippines, either by choice or necessity, complete retirement from work is the exception rather than the rule among those who  officially retire at  age either at 60 or 65.  I am no exception.  As long as they are healthy enough, people of my generation continue to be employed, many of them still receiving remuneration for their work as consultants, members of the boards of directors of different corporations, part-time professors or instructors and a good number in voluntary work in charitable foundations or associations.  We continue to work because we have been advised by medical experts that stopping to be engaged in some work or another is the surest way to have both our body and our mind  deteriorate rapidly.  Keeping ourselves active in some form of work or another is necessary for bodily and mental health.  But more importantly, we believe what St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work):  “Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being, in a sense, he becomes more a human being.  The knowledge that by means of work man shares in the work of creation constitutes the most profound motive for understanding it…”

         The “Saint of Ordinary Life”—St. Josemaria Escriva—as St. John Paul II called him, had preached and written most eloquently about the value of work to human fulfilment and happiness.  It was from him that I learned that no one ever “retires” from work.  The spirituality of the Catholic institution, Opus Dei, that he founded is very much identified with the sanctification of ordinary work:  that the ordinary Christian attains sanctity in the middle of the world primarily through work by sanctifying the work itself, sanctifying himself as he works and sanctifying others through his work.  In one of his widely read books, “Christ Is Passing By,” he wrote:  “Work is part and parcel of man’s life on earth.  It involves effort, weariness, exhaustion:  signs of the suffering and struggle which accompany human existence and which point to the reality of sin and the need for redemption   But in itself work is not a penalty or a curse or a punishment:  those who speak of it that way have not understood sacred Scripture properly.”

         “It is time for us Christians to shout from the rooftops that work is a gift from God and that it makes no sense to classify men differently, according to their occupation, as if some jobs were nobler than others.  Work, all work, bears witness to the dignity of man, to his dominion over creation.  It is an opportunity to develop one’s personality.  It is a bond of union with others, the way to support one’s family, a means of aiding in the improvement of the society in which we live and in the progress of all humanity…For a Christian these horizons extend and grow wider.  For work is a participation in the creative work of God.  When he created man and blessed him, he said:  “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it.  Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of Heaven, and all living animals on the earth.’ “  These are some of the most eloquent words ever written about work which should convince anyone never to stop working no matter how old he may be.  Retirement should not be in the vocabulary of anyone who is convinced that work is the best way to carry out God’s will for him on earth so as to be eternally happy with Him in Heaven. (To be continued.)

 

August 7, 2020

 

Living Long and Happy Lives (Part 2)

        

         In the book entitled “The New Long Life:  A Framework for Flourishing in a Changing World” by Andrew J. Scott and Lynda Gratton, it is asserted that in both developed and developing countries, people are not just living longer.  Many are also healthier for longer.  This fact does not change even if  elderly people were the majority of those who died because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As Michael Skapinker, who reviewed the book for Financial Times (June 15, 2020),  remarked:  “While the deaths are tragic, they are not going to noticeably thin the ranks of the elderly.  Nor will they change the fundamental dilemma of many developed countries, as well as China:  that they have too few young people to support a dependent older population.  It is not tolerable for those who have spent decades working to retire into poverty.  Nor is it fair for youngsters to pay higher taxes to fund their parents and grandparents’ pensions when they have so little hope of decent pensions themselves.”

         In most of the developed countries, the elderly population constitutes anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the total population.  Even in China, because of the one-child policy followed for 36 years under various authoritarian regimes, this percentage is already at a high 17.3 percent.  The Philippines is one of the few economies in Asia  which have a young and growing  population.  As of 2020, this figure for the Philippines is still less than 5 percent and, according to a projection by economists from the Philippine Institute of Development Studies (PIDS) it will rise to only 7 percent by 2032.  In contrast, Japan has the highest proportion of elderly to total population in the world.  In 2014, 33 percent of the Japanese population was above the age of 60, 25 percent above 65 and 12.5 percent above 75.  It is very predictable that the Japanese will depend heavily on countries like the Philippines to provide them with the necessary human resources to take care of their elderly.  As they live longer and longer lives, the Japanese (and other Northeast Asian and European populations) will depend on the young labor forces of countries like  the Philippines   to live healthy and happy lives.

         Thanks to a generally pro-life culture in the Philippines (despite aggressive campaigns coming from abroad to impose birth control measures), there will always be enough young people to take care of the elderly in most of our families.  It is highly unlikely that we will follow the widespread practice in developed countries of obliging many of their elderly to spend the rest of their lives in homes for the aged or retirement villages (which during the ongoing pandemic had the tragic  disadvantage of higher rates of infection and deaths).  Long-term projections of the Philippine population show that  almost indefinitely into the future our fertility rate will be at or above the replacement rate of 2.1 babies per fertile woman. In 2020, the fertility rate of the Philippines is 2.530 per woman.  In my dealings with thousands of young people over the last fifty years in various universities where I have taught, I have never encountered prospective married couples who voluntarily target to have only one child.  The minimum desired is at least three children.  That gives me the confidence that , although our population may reach a maximum of 150 to 160 in the next few decades, we will not be experiencing the demographic suicide that most developed countries have committed, leading to their ageing crisis.

         There will always be enough young people in a clan to take care of grandparents and great grandparents in their old age, without having to send them to retirement villages.  This will guarantee the long-term happiness of the elderly whose greatest joy is to spend the rest of their lives with their grandchildren and great grandchildren.    This is what Pope Francis said last January  31, 2020 in a conference on pastoral ministry for the elderly in the Vatican.   According to him, grandparents were the indispensable link in educating children and young people in the faith.  The elderly should be not only the objects of the Church’s care, but also be given a role to play in pastoral ministry and evangelising as “privileged witnesses of God’s faithful love.”  What the Pope said is already a reality among the elderly in the Philippines today.  He stressed the contribution of the elderly to voluntary activities and caring for others in need.  From my own personal experience, I see  the vast majority of those who are over 65 doing what the Pope described:  contributing to voluntary activities and caring for others in  need.  In the words of Pope Francis:  “Volunteering is an experience that is good for both the recipient and the person doing it.  Commitment to others can counteract the perception of loneliness, improve cognitive performance and increase mental well-being. Engaging in volunteering promotes what is called “active ageing.”

         “Living old age as the season of gift and the season of dialogue,” said Pope Francis, contradicts the stereotype of the elderly as “sick, disabled, dependent, alone , and afraid.”  Instead, it emphasises “the resources and potential of the elderly.”  Too often the elderly are discarded in the name of maintaining  a “balanced economic system,” at the centre of which there is not the human person, but money.  We are called to counter this poisonous culture of waste.  We are called to build a more welcoming, more human, more inclusive society which does not need to discard those who are weak in body and mind but moves in step with them.  Thanks to our predominantly Christian culture, the elderly in our society can fulfil the role identified for them by Pope Francis who asserted that the elderly, grandparents have a unique and special ability to grasp the most problematic situations, and their prayer is powerful.  They are entrusted with the great task of transmitting “the experience of life, the history of a family, a community, a people. If grandparents do not talk to their grandchildren, there will be no future.”   Let us make sure that there is always this intergenerational dialogue that does so much good to both the elderly and the young. For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia

 

                                                                                                               

August 14, 2020

 

Living Long and Happy Lives (Part 3)

 

         “The Sky Gets Dark, Slowly,” is the title of a best seller by Chinese author Zhou Daxin who won the Mao Dun literary prize in China.  The novel is touted to be  a “sensitive exploration of old age and the complex, hidden emotional worlds of the elderly in a  rapidly ageing population.”   As mentioned above, of the approximately 1.4 billion people in China, 17.3 percent belong to the elderly.  That’s a whopping 242 million ageing Chinese putting tremendous pressure on a disappearing young labor force.  The future economic growth of China is seriously endangered by this ageing crisis.  Even the decision a few years ago of the Chinese leadership to reverse the one-child policy has not prevented  the continuing fall in the fertility rate.  The population of elderly people in China is bigger than the populations of all countries in the world, except four, i.e. China, India, the US and Indonesia.   Zhou Daxin has hit a nerve when he wrote:  “…Many elderly speak as though they know everything, but of old age they are in fact as ignorant as children.  Many elderly are in fact completely unprepared for what they are to face when it comes to getting old and the road that lies ahead of them.”

         In an exclusively secularist environment, which does not take into account that there is a life hereafter, some of the usual advice given to ageing people can be summarised as follows:  (1)  The people by your side will inevitably grow smaller in number.  If you happen to outlive your peers, including your spouse, you should be prepared for days of emptiness, learning how to live alone, enjoying and embracing solitude.  (2)  No matter how prominent and famous you were, ageing will always transform you into just another ordinary person.  You should no longer expect to be acclaimed.  Learn to stand quietly in one corner and resist the temptation of being envious or grumbling.  3)  It is possible that you will have all types of health-related challenges, i.e. fractures, cardio-vascular blockages, brain atrophy, cancer, etc.  You may have to suffer illnesses and ailments.  To minimize the possibility of being visited with all types of sicknesses, while you are still physically able, do regular physical exercise, sleep for seven to eight hours a day and avoid unhealthy food and drinks.  4) If you are unfortunate, be prepared for spending the last years of your life in bed, returning to the infant state.  Others will look after you as did your mothers when you were born.  The only difference is that the caregiver may not be able to give you the same loving and tender care as your mothers.  Lie still and don’t be difficult; remember to be grateful.  5) Beware of swindlers and scammers who assume that the elderly have lots of savings and will be constantly devising schemes to cheat them of their money.  Hold your money close to you and spend it wisely.

         Fortunately for those who believe that there is heaven waiting for us when we leave this planet, St. John Paul II wrote before he passed away a letter to the elderly.  The former Pope  and now canonised saint reminded the elderly that man remains for ever made “in the image of God,” and each stage of life has its own beauty and its own tasks.  Indeed, in the  word of God, old age is so highly esteemed that long life is seen as a sign of divine favour.  In the case of Abraham, in whom the privilege of old age is stressed, this favour takes the form of a promise:  ‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great.  I will bless those who bless you and him who curses you I will curse; in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  The Pope then enumerates other outstanding examples of the elderly blessed by God in Sacred Scriptures:  Moses, who was an old man when God entrusted him with the mission of leading the Chosen People out of Egypt; Tobit, who humbly and courageously resolved to keep God’s Law;  Eleazar, whose martyrdom bore witness to an exceptional generosity and strength; Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the  Baptist;  Simeon, who had long awaited the Messiah and Anna, a widow of eighty four,  both of whom were present when the Child Jesus was presented in the Temple by his parents. 

         St. John Paul II stressed in his Letter to the Elderly the fact that the teaching and language of the Bible present old age as a “favourable time” for bringing life to its fulfilment and , in Gods’ plan for each person, as a time when everything comes together and enables us better to grasp life’s meaning and to attain “wisdom of heart”.  “An honourable old age comes not with the passing to time,” observes the Book of Wisdom, “nor can it be measured in terms of years; rather, understanding is the hoary crown for men and an unsullied life, the attainment of old age.”  Old age is the final stage of human maturity and a sign of God’s blessing.

         Because of the value of the elderly in every society, St. John Paul II commended all those social programs which enable the elderly to continue to attend to their physical well-being, their intellectual development and their personal relationships, as well as those enabling them to make themselves useful and to put their time, talents and experience at the service of others.  In this way the capacity to enjoy life as Gods’ primordial gift is preserved and increases.  Such a capacity to enjoy life in no way conflicts with that desire for eternity which grows within people of deep spiritual experiences as the lives of the saints bear witness.

         I would like to share with my fellow senior citizens (and those who are just beginning this stage in their lives by turning 60 or 65) the parting advice of St. John Paul II, who himself lived up to a ripe old age:  “I encourage each of you to live with serenity the years that the Lord has granted you.  I feel a spontaneous desire to share fully with you my own feelings at this point of my life, after more than twenty years of ministry on the throne of Peter and as we wait the arrival, now imminent, of the Third Millennium.  Despite the limitations brought on by age, I continue to enjoy life.  For this I thank the Lord.  It is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the Kingdom of God!”  Truly, the elderly who continue to do the will of God are in the enviable position of being at the threshold of their new home of everlasting happiness in the bosom of their Creator..  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia