Studies on the economics of ageing deal with the costs of a growing number of old people who are now dependent on their children and government. Their recommendations deal with improving pensions and social security systems and tend to look at an ageing society as a burden. This was further amplified by a statement of a high government official who implied that senior citizens are unproductive and in my interpretation, described them as almost “useless”. So, why, prioritize them in the vaccination program over the young?
In contrast, are the joy and warmth with which a “Restaurant of Mistaken Orders” was welcomed in Japan. It is staffed by seniors with some degree of cognitive impairment, like dementia. It is expected that orders for food and drinks can go wrong. Instances where hot coffee is served with a straw and where “gyoza” is served instead of a hamburger are not uncommon. Situations where the ageing staff sits down with the guests after showing them to their table are experienced. But, “mistaken orders” are not treated with impatience. Instead, they inspire courage and respect. Some customers are even moved to tears, and, in return, they get smiles from the ageing staff.
I had the privilege of taking care of my mother until she passed away at the age of 90. I had always looked at my experience not as a responsibility or a burden but an honor and a privilege. It was not just a time for giving back but learning and being inspired by her resilience, her wisdom, and her unending streaks of independence on how to be useful. It was a joy to be with her every day as she showed me the meaning of faith, courage, and love.
Recent studies established a strong correlation between health and happiness. The is not just anecdotal but evidenced-based. Happy old people were observed to be healthier than their unhappy counterparts. The unhappy ones incurred medical expenditures that were 30% higher than people who claimed to be happy. The incidence of hospitalization for the unhappy seniors was found to be higher. The studies found that happiness-induced interventions can slow down health decline, reduce health care costs and improve the productivity of old people (Ferrana, M). Indeed, preventive health care is more cost- efficient than curative health care.
We need to have a several degree turn on how we look at ageing. Iloilo Board Member Jason Gonzales constantly restrains me from describing myself as an ageing person. He says this attitude will feed into my brain and may influence my predisposition, and eventually, my health. I have taken his advice well and counseled my friends against describing themselves as “retarded” instead of “retired”. Seniors do not only deserve greater respect because of their age, but should be highly valued for their experience, counsel, and wisdom. The younger ones can certainly learn on how they value new mornings, derive joy from simple things, and have more realistic expectations.
There are lessons that can be derived from the restaurant of Mistaken Orders. Our foundation Synergeia would start planning for programs that integrate the participation of senior citizens in communities. (Many of our mentors are senior citizens.). We would design workshops not only to help them become mentors of parents and children but to open new worlds which were unknown to them before because they were pre-occupied with raising their children and earning a living. They may be interested in arts, music, history, literature, and language. They will benefit from interacting with peers as well as the young ones to discuss politics and the issue of West Philippine Sea. We will listen to their advice on how to solve the crisis in education and health. We hope we can make up for not harnessing their potential for so long.
There is nothing wrong with spending and supporting homes for the elderly. But the returns may be greater on organizing seniors as volunteers not just for church services but for civic work where they can realize their significance in empowering others. We can encourage their active social life, like a chat group during the pandemic, a book-club group, or on-line workshops. Loneliness can be the worst affliction of seniors and we must create opportunities for their connectiveness and engagement in community activities.