Ageism And A Collapsing Society
THE first time that the issues of ageing and ageism invaded my mind was on the eve of my 40th birthday. It is doubtful if my mind would have wandered into these territories by itself for the simple reason that at that time, I was far more interested in living and the intricacies of that condition than in the slowing down and indeed stopping which ageing entails. In the weeks leading to my 40th birthday, I was involved in doing some research work in Professor Ola Skold’s laboratory in Uppsala University, the oldest university not just in Sweden where it is set but also in the whole of Scandinavia. In that environment, you are surrounded by ancient buildings, institutions and traditions, all stimulants to the subject of ageing and survival. My thoughts about ageing were stimulated by a man, a man younger than I was but whose mind was already suffused with the thought of ageing, not in an abstract or general terms but in a particular and personal way.
Professor Skold’s laboratory was a meeting point, almost a melting pot for scientists from many parts of the world and the young man with ageing on his mind came from the neighbouring country of Norway. What my interlocutor wanted to know was how I felt about being so close to 40. To tell the truth, I had not thought about that subject until I was asked and my honest and immediate response was, ‘nothing’.
My Norwegian friend informed me that the imminence of his own 40th birthday was weighing him down so badly that he had been thinking very seriously of seeing a psychiatrist to help in dealing with the demons, which had been making his life miserable of late. This came as a big surprise even a shock to me as I had not given any thought to my own coming birthday. Whenever I thought of fortieth birthdays, what came to my mind was the thought of the lavish parties with which fortieth birthdays were celebrated back home in Nigeria. But I knew that my own birthday was not going to be marked with a big party not only because I was away from home but also because I was not a believer in lavish birthday parties, preferring instead to take stock of my failures and achievements in the year that had just gone by in my life.
The man from Norway found it difficult to believe that I was not kept awake at night by the sounds of rushing winds which accompanied the passing of my years, plunging me into old age with all the disadvantages which old age deposited on the fragile shoulders of the aged. As he pointed out to me, to be old in Europe was to in many cases to be despised and treated as a second-class citizen or worse. The old, especially the very old, because they were no longer seen as being productive members of a society which prided itself solely on its productivity were shoved aside and removed from centre stage and could only be tolerated on the fringes of that demanding society.
I felt very strongly that this attitude to the aged was extremely unfortunate and was thankful that the situation was quite different in Nigeria where the older one became, the greater the level of respect that was due to one. Woe betide any young person who had the temerity to continue to warm a seat in an overcrowded bus when any noticeably older person was on his feet swaying to the unsteady beat of the moving vehicle. Age was entitled to many privileges and achieving old age was thus attractive and did not give rise to the damaging anxieties afflicting Europeans who at forty were still far from being decorated with the badge of maturity not to talk of the venerable condition of being actually old. I had the conversation in reference here a little over a quarter of a century ago, at a time when no Nigerian on the verge of forty entertained the fear of being demoted to the outer fringes of our society on account of the weight of years sitting on his shoulders. Even at that time however, I knew that the pace of my life was bound to slow down by the advancement of years but at the same time, I knew that I could confidently look forward to the societal compensations and considerations which age was bound to confer on me. From that high point of superiority which my condition conferred on me, all I could do for my Norwegian interlocutor was to offer rather lame words of consolation but also knowing that the European system complete with homes for the aged and absence of re-employment opportunities for those over the age of forty, could be very cruel to the aged, I had a great deal of sympathy for him.
I have now crawled past the age of 65 when in Britain at least you became, for demographic considerations, a senior citizen, an Old Age Pensioner (OAP) who could begin to draw a state pension and was entitled to a discount whilst travelling on public transport. In societies in which records are diligently kept, your pension was forwarded to you as soon as you became eligible and it continued to arrive without fail until your demise was recorded by the state and the pension ceased automatically. It is now clearly apparent that you are much better off living in what my Norwegian counterpart thought was a gulag for the aged than to be sentenced to life imprisonment in what in my naiveté, I thought was bound to be a paradise for the aged.
In the first place here, virulent inflation brought about by criminal mis-governance has reduced the value of your pension to a pittance and the administration of pensions has been reduced to the level of cruel and unusual punishment. Pensions are hardly ever paid on time and since records are practically nonexistent, pensioners are required to show up in person to receive their pension to guard against paying money to those who had died. Even then, pensioners are collected in some filthy location to have their names retained on the pension list. Such is the severity of this exercise that at least a few pensioners fail to return home any time this exercise was organized. To add insult to injury, pensions are the first group of payments to be defaulted on whenever there is a problem with salary payments in any sector of our economy. It is tragically ironic that I was the one who was not frightened by the prospect of ageing and not only that, was dispensing advice to someone heading to a much more promising future than I.
Now that I am an OAP or would have been if I lived in Britain, it has become clear to me that I was living in a fantasy world all those years ago when I looked forward with an impressive degree of equanimity to my achieving the grand status of an old man. Now that I have lost a lot of my hair and acquired a powdering of silver to what is left of it, I suddenly find that either I was wrong about the character of my society all those years ago or society had taken a turn for the worse over the intervening years. I am inclined to believe that the latter suggestion is the correct one as was the case in Sweden. Our Professor was Ola to everyone in the laboratory except me, as I could not come to terms with addressing anyone so obviously older than I by his first name. It was the Professor who told me that in the Sweden in which he grew up, nobody dared to all their seniors by name but that societal changes had brought the unwholesome changes in societal intercourse which I had observed and could not bring myself to be part off.
In the here and now, old people are officially abused and despised by Nigerian society. Thus it was that the eventual winner of the recent elections was subjected to rank abuse on account of his age. One of the more vocal of the opposition members, displaying a shocking lack of decorum showered abuse on a man old enough to be his father and showed that his upbringing was of questionable quality by his trying to score his asinine points at the expense of his own mother. It has been calculated that only three per cent of Nigerians are above the age of sixty and so this is an exclusive club, the membership of which cannot be taken for granted but this is not a consolation to those who have to live within a society which no longer puts any great value on age. And, the Yoruba saying that getting old comes with a legion of trouble has never meant more to the aged than now when rank disrespect has been added to the other troubles, both physical and psychological which the aged have to cope with. My Norwegian counterpart is now 64 years old and he can look forward to a life supported by a society in which everybody has a right to be sheltered from the vagaries of life in a way that is not now possible in Nigeria.
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