About 10 years ago, my friend Dr Robin Mogere told a group of older men that if you are over 50 and you do not have a pain or an ache on some part of your body, then you are most likely to be dead. While I am sure the good doctor was not expressing a medical opinion, he brought home the bleak reality of growing old.
Old age creeps upon you like a thief in the night. All of a sudden people call out “Mzee!” and you start looking around for an old man only to realise that it is you they are referring to perhaps to surrender a seat for you on public transport or in a queue. The young boda boda men start to call you “Daddy” or “Buda” as a show of respect. When you visit a new environment the first thing you want to know about its geography is the location of the washrooms.
Men tend to be more affected psychologically than women because our bodies are unforgiving in reminding us that we are no longer young. The spring in the step slowly disappears and we have to concentrate on the ground we walk on, noticing small objects like nails, to make sure we do not trip. Of course, by now the flag only rises to half mast as if in mourning of a heroic past life.
The ladies start to walk gingerly to avoid a fall as osteoporosis makes their bones more brittle.
We fight to control weight gain and exercise at the gym becomes more and more strenuous for our ageing bodies. Our joints become less flexible and some may develop arthritis making movement painful. We have to observe a strict diet avoiding many of our favourite foods and snacks. The wrinkles on your skin become more pronounced and furrowed while your muscles become weaker.
The number of medications you have to take regularly slowly fill up your medicine chest as visits to the doctor become more frequent. Although you may get into bed early, sleep does not come easy and you tend to get up at four or five in the morning. You find it more difficult to remember even simple things like your passwords.
The cost of medical care for older citizens is quite a challenge. Although the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) has significantly increased the scope and value of inpatient medical cover, it is still not enough to cater for all the expenses and without other medical insurance cover, families have to resort to harambees (fund raising).
With urbanisation and the gradual breakdown of the traditional extended family network home care for the old is now largely provided by paid nurses who are quite expensive.
But all is not doom and gloom for old people. When we are young, we have a lot of energy, little time because of our jobs and family, and not much disposable income as we pay our children’s school, car loans and mortgages.
However, when we grow older, we have a lot of time, a bit of spare money, little energy but, most importantly, we have a lot of wisdom and experience.
William Wordsworth said “The wiser mind mourns less for what age takes away than what it leaves behind”.
We need to apply the wisdom we have gained over time to focus on what is most important and accept that there are things we shall no longer be able to do as well. Those older people who focus on loss will be less able to maximise their mental powers, even in areas that traditionally seem vulnerable to the effects of ageing. By concentrating on your strengths rather than weaknesses, your more positive mindset will allow you to take advantage of your mental powers, even if they are not quite what they were in your youth.
“Too many people, when they get old, think they have to live by the calendar,” said Senator John Glenn, the oldest person to have boarded a Space Shuttle at age 77. We should not let age define us. The calendar is a useful way to let us know the date, but if you let yourself be hemmed in by your chronological age, you may lock yourself out of valuable opportunities.
I am lucky that I found my passion in old age, but I had to fight through pain and despair. I taught myself to type with one arm while my other arm was experiencing excruciating pain but, today as long as I am writing, there is no pain.
Old age is not the time to try and make money or engage in new projects. Look for that thing that you are passionate about and enjoy doing. Give your wisdom and experience freely to those who need it.
Get involved in community work and that way give back to society. My friend, professor David Ngugi, who just turned 80, went back to teach in Thirime Primary School at Thogoto, Kikuyu for free.
Seek out your mates from primary school, talk about who was the goody-goody two shoes, the snitch, the nerd and who had a crush on who. Share the most lurid jokes and experiences. You will be surprised at what you can get away with in your old age when you are written off as being cranky! Social media has made it so simple to connect and have reunions with your buddies from those early days.
As Madeleine L’Engle, the American writer said, “the great thing about growing old is that you don’t lose all the other ages you have been”.
Enjoy your golden years; they are your best if you plan well and adopt a positive attitude.