Firstly, we need to define the three ages of man. For the purposes of
this presentation, I consider the first age is that of the child and the youth. These are
the years of suckling, cherishing, training and formally educating. They are the formative
years where the child benefits from the love, nurturing and sacrifices of the parents and
the basic foundation of his or her life is formed.
Through recorded history, these are the years where the traditional
values, laws, customs, and morality of the "tribe" are learnt. In most
societies, when the elders felt these values were properly understood, initiation into
adulthood took place. As an adult, the individual became responsible for upholding the
laws and traditions, ensuring the continuation of the tribal customs.
The second age we could call the age of the active adult. This was the
longest span of years, and the work, protection and development of the tribe fell mainly
on the people in that age group.
The third age was that of the older persons. Because of their age and
experience, they were regarded as sources of wisdom. They had stored in their memories the
history of the past, of laws, customs and morality, and so the tribe looked to them for
leadership and knowledge. Arguably, in most cases, the elderly were valued, played an
important role in the life of the tribe, and felt secure and loved. The circle was
complete, in that the loving care they gave to the tribe during their lives, was now being
given to them in their latter days. It was an integrated life.
History reveals great civilizations in the past arose from a religious
or moral inspiration, then blossomed, plateaued and ultimately disintegrated.
Dorothy Buckland-Fuller in Ann Deveson's fascinating book Coming
of Age, says 'I think that if each one of us does not put our little stone to the
monument that we want to call civilization, there will be no civilization'. (Dorothy Buckland-Fuller has
had a lifetime involvement with ethnic communities, and has served on the Ethnic Affairs
Commission, she is also a member of the NSW Consumer Forum for the Aged).
That was how tribal and family life evolved - seemingly until today.
Advance in medical knowledge has expanded the number of years regarded as man's allotted
span. So today, I see the three ages roughly taking up about eighty years - child and
youth about twenty, adulthood approximately forty and old age twenty years.
Our school education today has extended its curriculum and the young
are exposed to a wide variety of subjects. Sports, art, music and other cultural
activities are made available, and an affluent society encourages youths' participation.
This is today's equivalent of tribal education, except that two interrelated subjects for
the most part are missing. They are religion and the social mores that the religion or
philosophy created, which, in turn supported the coherence of the tribe.
On the whole, today's youth do not appear to enjoy that strong support.
In other words, the cohesiveness of the tribal or family way of life is being ousted in
favour of 'indivdualism' per se. Youth is being constantly exposed to the many
vicissitudes of living in the late twentieth century.
To a large extent adult economic greed uses youth as a lucrative source
for exploitation. The striving to look young, whilst seeking the external pleasures of
youth, has become the main aim of many people's lives. So large number of young people
have been brought up to see themselves in a distorted way - as unimportant, and lacking in
significance for society as a whole.
With all the wonderful advantages today that youth have available, one
would expect that youth presenting for initiation into the adult world would be happily
expectant. But many are not. Many young people today appear confused and certainly not
happy. Australia has the highest rate of youth suicide in the world. Why?
In the second age in today's world, we find men and women from roughly
20 to 60 years of age, working extremely hard. This work supports a large proportion of
youth, and to some extent, the aged. The stress of responsibility on this group is great.
We hear that to find a new job after age 40, is difficult, for we are programmed to think
youthfully. While 20-40 years is acceptable, after 40 - well, you are 'getting on'.
Valuable experience is not always taken into consideration.
We hear of men and women with 'burn out' at fifty-five and sixty to
sixty-five is the normal age of retirement. However, I do not propose to discuss the
question of the age of retirement, beyond noting that maybe our economic system today
requires that the aged 'move out' to make room for the younger person. Such an idea
appears economically feasible.
Betty Friedan says in "The Fountain of Age" 'The old and the
young need each other. We're opposed to the segregation of older people out of society.
Older people have so much to give to society, it's wrong to sell them places, just to
play, to keep them out of the way'.
And Dorothy Buckland-Fuller notes that: 'There should be an older
person and a younger person on every job; one job could be quite well shared between two,
sometimes three people'.
But that also becomes an economic problem and not for consideration in
Many of these retired older people form the backbone of necessary
voluntary charitable work. Such charitable organisations are built into the fabric of
existence in today's world. However, it is interesting to note that once one has retired
from a paid job, there is a diminution of respect for such new work. Of course, this is
not exclusive to older people. Mothers or home-carers have complained for years at the
non-recognition of the value of their unpaid labour.
Does that mean money is the standard by which we evaluate life? I do know that without voluntary work, many institutions would have to close.
Betty Friedan states 'Just as darkness is sometimes defined as the
absence of light, so age is defined as the absence of youth. Age is assessed not by what
it is, but by what it is not'.
Anne Deveson in the foreword in the magazine Your Retirement comments
on this statement by saying 'Age should not always be measured against youth, as if youth
was the norm and age some kind of social disease'.
The nuclear family is a comparative newcomer in the social structure.
Everything to do with living today, in the western world certainly, is predicted on the
nuclear family concept. Our dwelling places are separate units or houses, designed for two
young adults and temporary provision for two children. Some children want freedom to
express their 'individualism' by moving out from parental care from age 10 years onwards -
some living on the streets. Why?
Governments plan dwellings, roads, amenities, etc. based on the needs
of a nuclear family. We are really people 'living in little boxes'. These little boxes are
inhabited by stages one and two. Stage three, the aged group live somewhere else. They
live in smaller little boxes or, when too frail, in nursing homes. And it appears this
system is spreading. Recently, a friend was congratulating a Beijing resident on the
extended family care practised by Chinese people in relation to their aged. She was told
that was still so in the main, but, that in say twenty years, they too, will probably have
nursing homes for the aged.
But we in the western world now fare very well compared with other
countries. Elizabeth Obadina, a freelance writer and journalist living in Lagos writes,
'Elderly people without a family or savings or too frail to work, often face a life on the
streets. In Lagos, a city of six million people, there are two old people's homes. They
provide just 37 places to strictly destitute elderly. Nationally, there are 13 homes
serving Nigeria's population of 95 million'.
Nursing homes are no longer as accessible as they were. There is a very
real thrust now to keep the old in their own homes. It is less of a drain on the economy.
But this means more community assistance is needed and family carers are often forced into
actual '24 hours a day, seven days a week' servitude to the sick aged.
But as a realist, it is hard to see the possibility of changing this
concept of the nuclear family in the near future. Where does this leave the third stage
older people? We accept them as baby minders and as voluntary unpaid workers. But what
happens when their physical powers begin to slow down and they no longer are able to cope
with these tasks or with any social activities? If they are 70 plus, they may still have
another ten to twenty years to live.
I think it is time we examined this latter part of the ageing stage.
Much is written about, and much is done regarding the physical mechanics of staying alive,
but not so much regarding the 'feeling' process. To really know what it feels like to be
old, you have to be old.
When anything goes wrong with a person whether old or young, we still
think in terms of the old system. We still, in spite of our own individualism and
over-complex bureaucratic society, say, when all else fails 'call the family'. It is
useful for society to have a category to which it can pass the responsibility. This
happens in the case of old people.
Yet, one thing all old people fear the most, is being a burden to their
children. The fact that once the children were babies and, at the time were a
burden lovingly accepted, is not remembered by old people. They usually only want good and
pleasurable things for their children and grandchildren.
Health problems and often, the accompanying pain are unpredictable and
have to be coped with when the time comes. But there are other things which could be
changed prior to this, and to everyone's advantage.
As their physical powers decrease, their usefulness to society lessens.
Their outside interests become too enervating and it is now that they really desperately
need to feel they still have a place in family life. They need to feel of some small use
in the world and they need to love and assurance.
I mentioned in the beginning that religion is missing from many
children's education. Yet our western civilization, through Judaism and Christianity was
built on religious values, one of which was 'Honour your father and mother'. All other
world religions have similar values.
For those of religious bent the religious scriptures have not changed.
Today's newest and fast growing world religion - the Bahá'í Faith - upholds the love and
respect due to parents. It also includes in its administrative system roles for both
adults and the older generation. Elections for example are conducted by secret ballot and
there is no material gain. All are eligible for election to administration bodies. Those
elected are there to serve their community and humanity in general, for that year.
Whenever the religions include the old, there is integration in that sphere.
But in the secular world, computers, books and all the new technology
now store some - only some - of the knowledge formerly retained in the memories of the old
men and women. So respect for the aged has diminished.
These days in the upbringing of children, much emphasis is placed on
not just giving loving care as was done by the past generations, but now verbalisation of
the love is necessary as well. You frequently hear the words 'Mummy and daddy love you so
much'. Such affirmations, along with hugging and touching, are universally accepted as
being important for the well being and development of the child. May I suggest that old
people too would benefit immeasurably from having loving words and occasional hugs from
loving adult children and grandchildren.
The emotional desert in which most older people languish is not
necessary. I think it comes from ignorance imposed by a frenetically busy world, but some
of the blame for the lack of support lies with some of the old people themselves.
They often endure this loneliness and say nothing; ask nothing. They
make excuses for their adult children by recognising the extreme busyness of today's
world. The following points expand on this theme.
Firstly, the fact that the adult children do not understand their
parent's needs may in part be because they are not 'old' themselves and don't truly
Secondly, a potent factor is fear. Old people feel inferior in
education to their children and of course, they are in a comparatively powerless position.
They are afraid if they speak out they may risk losing the loving things that do come
their way. Better to stay silent than risk losing all.
Thirdly, one fear that older people have was expressed by Noreen Hewett
in 'Coming of Age'. 'A lot of older people, me included, wouldn't like to have a heart
attack and be left lying around for a week or so.' This is a real problem and needs to be discussed.
Fourthly, for some older people pride leads to a reluctance to admit to
the world that one's children are not supremely loving to their parents.
Fifthly, there is an inbuilt loyalty to protect their adult children
and grandchildren by covering up their failure to give support.
Sixth and lastly, traditionally it has not been acceptable that one
steps outside the family to discuss such things. These things are endured as part of
growing old. I think the same attitudes in the past used to be held regarding domestic
violence and incest. Now such subjects are openly discussed. Why not discuss the emotional
needs of the elderly?
Should you be thinking why am I not fearful of expressing these facts,
I can say it is because I have already spoken of them and because I trust my children's
integrity. They would accord me the right to express my views. Everyone has rights these
days, so why not the 'oldies' emotional rights? Also, I know many of the things I speak of
they recognise and practise already.
Quite a number of years ago, when I was thanking my adult child and
spouse for including me in some family activity, it was said, 'Well, we realise we will be
old one day and if we don't practise family involvement now, how can we expect our
children to give such involvement to us in our old age.'
What can be done? Firstly, families should consult and discuss with
their adult children, maybe with grandchildren too, their needs and their problems. There
will be new knowledge exposed of which the younger people are unaware. Physical needs have
to be sorted out.
The emotional needs are not so easy to define. I have already mentioned
the need for verbal expressions of love and for hugs. Phone calls, visits, tapes, letters
are all ways of saying 'we still care'. Including the grandparents in family activities is
comparatively easy if it takes in the family routine, e.g. 'We are taking the children for
a tennis lesson, would you like to come and watch?' It is not a big deal but it is
enriching for all three age groups.
I come finally to an old idea in a new guise, which really encapsulates
all the suggestions. It is 'extended-family-thinking'. I am suggesting we consider and
practise deliberate "Extended Family Thinking". An explanation follows.
With extended family thinking built in to each present day nuclear
family right from the early days of childhood, the emotional needs of the aged would be
woven into the fabric of everyday life. It is not a difficult concept. It is not a change
of direction of one's love and care. It is simply a deliberate extension of family
thinking. It can be done.
To have a unified family approach there is a need for family
consultation at the beginning. It needs to be done now, possibly before you even have an
aged person in your family. But you will be preparing for what will happen. Your parents,
grandparents and you, yourself will get old.
In discussing extended family thinking we appear to be referring solely
to blood relationships, but close family friends and distant but loved relatives can and
do play important roles in the extended family concept.
If we do commence "Extended Family Thinking", then the
problems relating to the respect, value and love of the older generation will be greatly
Whether we have practising religious beliefs or not, the emotional
welfare as well as the physical welfare of older people is essential if we are to
re-create a truly integrated life span for humanity.
So, may I again ask you to consider, and practise "Extended Family
Thinking" and then we will have the integration of the three ages of man.
Buckland-Fuller, Dorothy, interviewed in Anne Deveson, Coming of Age,
Scribe Publications, Newham, Australia, 1994.
Deveson, Anne, Your Retirement, National Publishing Group,
Friedan, Betty, The Fountain of Age, Vintage, London, 1994.
Hewett, Noreen in Anne Deveson, Coming of Age, Scribe,
Obadina, Elizabeth, 'Bosom of the Family', in The New
Internationalist, No. 264, New Internationalist Publications, Sydney, Feb. 1995.
1. Dorothy Buckland-Fuller, in Anne Deveson, Coming of Age, Scribe
Publications, Newham Australia, 1994, p.120.
2. Betty Friedan, The Fountain of Age, Vintage, London, 1994, p.166.
3. Dorothy Buckland-Fuller, op. cit., p.122.
4. Betty Friedan, op. cit., p.68.
5. Anne Deveson, in magazine Your Retirement, National Publishing Group, Sydney, 1995, p.4.
6. Elizabeth Obadina, 'Bosom of the Family', in The New Internationalist No. 264, New Internationalist Publications Australia, Feb. 1995, p.16.
7. Noreen Hewett, in Anne Deveson, Coming of Age, Scribe Publications,
Newham, Australia, 1994, p.256.