In the past, the term for chronologically old people was “matanda” or “gurang,” Today, they are commonly known as “senior citizens” or “tanders.” People in this stage of life are often thought of as suffering from biological deterioration and senility, aggravated by society’s negative myths and stereotypes about aging.
In 1968, Robert Butler coined the word “ageism,” which refers to a deep and toxic prejudice against the elderly, expressed through outright disdain or simply avoiding contact with them. Even in families, ageists treat their elders in a condescending or patronizing manner. Ageism can be as destructive as any other form of bigotry.
For instance, some owners of restaurants and shops consider senior citizens as bad for business. When they show their discount cards while paying, they are sometimes met with a smirk or a pout. In the cinema, when they watch movies for free, some youngsters would joke at each other: “Huwag kang pumila dyan, mga amoy lupa iyan.”
There is a renewed interest today in eradicating racism and sexism. Black Lives Matter and the Me-Too movements are gaining ground because of incidents marked by racial discrimination and sexual abuse that have gone viral. Sadly we hear very little about any movement against ageism.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said: “In Africa, when an old person dies, a library disappears. Without the knowledge and wisdom of their elders, the young would never know where they come from or where they belong.” That seems no longer true. Young people today have the Internet and other modern sources of information as their virtual elders.
Our Christian faith does not exempt us from the ravages of old age, but it helps us see this part of life in a meaningful way. We believe that aging and physical decay are inevitable aspects of human life. Hope and rebirth are thus viewed as inseparable from tragedy and death. Life is s a spiritual journey where death is not the end, but merely a boundary.
But such an integral view of existence is gradually disappearing because we have abandoned many of the spiritual resources that help us understand and accept that earthly life has an end. We have allowed science to replace religion in explaining old age.
Science sees old age is a problem or disease that requires the intervention of health professionals, lawyers, psychologists and psychiatrists. Instead of helping the old to cope with the reality of aging, they are offered escape through cosmetic surgery, rejuvenating drugs, rehabilitation centers, spas, wellness workshops, therapeutic and recreation centers.
Capitalism has channeled the needs of the old into the consumption of goods and services that promise them longevity, health, and worry-free existence. Exploiting their fear of death, old people are offered private pension plans, investment trusts, life insurance plans, accident benefit plans, etc.
If there are advocacies today against racism and sexism, there should also be one against ageism, denouncing the superficiality of the beauty and youth cult, and to emphasize the benefits that come from a humble and joyful acceptance of the inevitable.
An 82-year old friend confides: “Growing old comes with deep physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual pain. It cuts to the very core of my being. But I try to see humor in my situation. The fear of the dark should not make me fear the twilight. Besides, I always see my life as God’s gift. What I do with it while I’m still alive is my gift to God. So, for now I join Barbra Streisand as she sings:
“Good times and bum times;
I’ve seen them all, and my dear,
I’m still here!”