Living long and happy lives

Published July 30, 2020, 11:00 PM

by Dr. Bernardo M. Villegas


(Part 1)

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 20 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 Organization (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, realizing 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.