Last week, I came across two interesting articles about aging and people. The articles really set me thinking about our concept of Aging. For all living beings, growing old, is obviously one of the unwritten but basic laws of the nature just like death. Leaving aside the cases, where a living being has met a sudden and immature death, old age is inevitable and irreversible. But how do we define age? I am little confused regarding this, as a result of my reading these articles. I am convinced now that it is practically impossible to define old age by any measure of number of years. We can see that across a spectrum of societies and nations of the world, there is no similarity or coherence at all, regarding old age and number of years one has to put in, to reach that status. The so called retirement age, wherein you are officially considered a senior, varies widely from 55 years to 72 years of age. Even in India, even though one is considered a senior to avail special rates of interest on a bank deposit, at an age of 60, Income tax refuses to acknowledge the same person as senior, unless he attains an age of 65. We also see persons with exactly same age at totally different levels of physical fitness and mental agility. There is something wrong in defining old age by number of years one has put in.
The first of the two articles, which I mentioned in the beginning, is written by Mr. Michel Mosley of BBC and describes an experiment done with a batch of six elders to check or prove, whatever one wants to believe, a hypotheses put across in 1979 by Dr. Ellen Langer, an eminent psychologist and professor from Harward University. Her experimental work, consisted of two experiments carried out by her in United states. In 1976, Dr. Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin, set up their first experiment at a New England nursing home, Arden House, for the aged. This nursing home occupies 4 floors of a building and has 360 beds for the care of the aged. The experiment was so set up that residents on two floors of the 360-bed home for the elderly would experience some changes in their everyday life. The residents on both floors were given plants and film shows. However, only those on the fourth floor, had the opportunity to control these events. They could choose the plant and look after it themselves, and could also choose, which night of the week, to view the film. The aged on the second floor were also given the plants that the staff tended and were told which was their film night. In addition to this, aged people on fourth floor also were given some control on the day and time, when visitors could visit them.
Eighteen months later, when Dr. Langer and Judith Rodin returned to the home, they were astonished to discover that twice as many of the elderly residents in this ‘choices’ group were alive, compared with the control group on the second floor. It appeared that taking nominal control of something very trivial about their life,made them live longer.
The second experiment, which was carried out by Dr. Langer 1979, is well known as “Counterclockwise” study. This literally means turning the clock backwards or going back in time. In this experiment, a group of elderly men lived for a week as though it was 1959 (20 years back in time). After a week Dr. Langer had observed dramatic improvements in this group of elders in their hearing, memory, dexterity, appetite, and general well-being. As a result of these two experiments, Dr. Ellen Langer had concluded in her book that “ The magic of rejuvenation and ongoing good health lies in being aware of the ways we mindlessly react to social and cultural cues.” In this book, she examines the hidden decisions and vocabulary that shape the medical world (“chronic” versus “acute,” “cure” versus “remission”), the powerful physical effects of placebos, and the intricate but often defeatist ways we define our physical health. She says further that “The limits we assume and impose on ourselves are real. With only subtle shifts in our thinking, in our language, and in our expectations, we can begin to change the ingrained behaviors that sap health, optimism, and vitality from our lives and can expect improved vision, younger appearance, weight loss, and increased longevity.”
Michel Mosley of BBC recently set out an experiment to examine this very hypothesis of Dr. Ellen Langer that if we could turn back the clock psychologically for a person, we also turn it back physically. He selected a group of 6 celebrities in the age group of 76 to 88 and recreated a world for them, which they had left 35 years ago. They lived in this time capsule house for a week, during which they dressed in 1970s clothes, slept in replicas of their very own 70s bedrooms, watched television from that era, and talked about 1975 in the present tense. Another thing about this 1970s house was that it was full of physical challenges. There were raised carpet corners to trip over, door ridges to stumble upon and lots of slippery floors. In short it was a challenging environment instead of the secure but boring environment to which these people were used to.
All the volunteers were told that they were expected to look after themselves. On their arrival, they were asked to carry their bags up a flight of stairs to their bedrooms. It was the first time they’d been forced into such physical activity in many years, and they were not happy. But they rose to the challenge. When they started at the bottom of the stairs, a couple were adamant it would be impossible to make it to the top. Slowly, step by step, they succeeded. .Over the week they were given tasks to do, and also were left alone to look after themselves. For up to 12 hours a day, they were observed through surveillance cameras and great changes were seen. One of the participants, who had not walked without two sticks in her hand since she had suffered a stroke and had always used a wheelchair, was able to walk 148 steps with aid of just one stick. She had found a new confidence and was no longer willing to be limited by the physical constraints she had imposed on herself.
At the end of the week all the volunteers were put through the same rigorous battery of physical and psychological tests, they had gone through at the beginning. It was heartening to see that memory, mood, flexibility, stamina and even eye sight had improved in almost all of them. The results were not uniform, but in some cases the volunteers shed up to 20 years in their apparent biological age. Obviously, Ellen Langer’s argument that “ Opening our minds to what’s possible, can lead to better health, whatever our age.” made lots of sense.
The second article, about which I have mentioned in the beginning, is about a study carried out by London School of Economics, based on a survey carried out by Ipsos MORI . They had interviewed 12,262 members of the general public across 12 countries between 10 June and 14 July 2010. This survey was sponsored by a health insurance company BUPA. The major findings of this survey are, firstly the informal care network (the traditional pattern of families looking after their elderly) is disintegrating due to a number of factors, including the number of older people in need of care, growing faster than the number of potential carers from younger generations, the growth of women in employment and the increase of one person households and secondly the dependency ratio (Number of young working people available to support an aging elder) is fast going up. These results could not surprise me at all, as I can and I do observe these outcomes all around me, from the changing social conditions and situations. What really surprised me however, were two other findings from this survey.
Both these finding are about attitudes of the persons surveyed in this survey. As I have mentioned above, seniors from 12 countries were asked questions in this survey. 72 % of the persons who were above age of 65, came out saying, that they do not consider themselves aged at all. The overall consensus was that the old age starts after 80 years, though Chinese thought that old age starts at 60 itself. The second finding of the survey, which I felt was quite amazing, was about the Indian elders above 65 years, The survey records that from people of all the nations surveyed, Indians are most carefree about their future. In fact, 70% of the Indian elders surveyed, even refused to acknowledge significance of age in their life.
The survey mentions two reasons for this carefree attitude of Indians. It says that most of the Indian elders surveyed, had made some kind of financial provision for their old age and since dependency ratio of Indians is the least (5%) in all the nations surveyed, there are obviously very many young people to support the elders and Indian elders are confident that this young generation would take care of them.
This gives me feeling that there is an apparent contradiction, between results of Dr. Ellen Langer’s argument and outcome of this BUPA survey. For countries like India, where dependency ratio is quite low, the elders would be more dependent on the younger generation compared to elders in high dependency countries in Europe or in Japan. Availability of more young people to carry out many jobs in daily life for the elders in India means that they are bound to have less personal control on their life. This means that as per Dr. Ellen Langer’s argument, Indian elders must have inferior physical and mental health as compared to their peers from say Europe or Japan. However BUPA survey records very contrary view and finds that Indians are most young at heart elders and do not care at all about their age.
What therefore could be special about Indians, that they can not fit into Dr. Ellen Langer’s hypotheses. The answer to this riddle, according to me, is fairly simple. It is very true that most of the Indian elders today are relieved from the daily chores and physical work due to availability of young generation and servants. In spite of this help available to them, the elders in India face today far greater challenges in their daily life. An elder in Europe or Japan for example, may find special treatment, while using public transports, very many safety contraptions while using public places etc. An elder in India finds no special treatment anywhere in the life. They have to compete with younger generation to get a place in public transports, which are always crowded. There are hardly any special safety facilities on roads. There are not even many pedestrian crossings on the road and even in places where these exist, no one follows the rules. An Indian elder just has to find his own way on crowded streets like others, drive their vehicles in same anarchic traffic conditions.
The elders in India suffer electrical outages, water shortages, much higher degree of pollution of all kinds including noise. They get frustrated and annoyed every day just like younger generation Indians when they have work in Government offices, inefficient municipal administrations.
All these challenging situations, make the elders in India very alert and sharp. They just can not take things in easy way. All this requires a very positive attitude to life just for survival. I feel that facing these challenges requires far more physical and mental effort than what is required to carry out daily chores. I therefore feel that this makes on the contrary, Indian elders, a compelling case for Dr. Ellen Langer’s arguments. Indian elders live their life ‘counterclockwise’ all the time. This attitude perhaps explains why Indian elders are least afraid of diseases like dementia.
Since I belong to this new generation of Young-at-heart, elders from India, my experience is that our generation enjoys much better quality of life, compared to last two generations, whom I have seen closely. I was really not aware, all these days, about the reasons for this improvement in our quality of life. Dr.Ellen Langer’s arguments, certainly throw a new light. I whole heartedly endorse her view that “ It’s too easy to have everybody take care of us. But you can be helped to death”
25th September 2010