Not easy to be old

In the language of aviation, we often say that old people have already collected their boarding passes and are only waiting for their flights to be called.

Ray Ekpu

When you get to age 70, as I did recently, you realise that it is not easy to be old. You can still carry yourself with admirable grace but not with much vigour. You are no longer able to go up the stairs in a lunatic flight as you used to do when you were young. That quickness of foot and body is gone, gone forever and can never be reversed or retrieved or regained. That expressway speed, that vivacious quickness in movement is gone, never to return. You now walk with an economy of effort, you move with glacial slowness and if you have a beer belly in front of you, you walk with a portly waddle. You don’t have anymore the envied body of a dancer.

The irony is that 70 brings a sense of urgency to your thoughts, the urgency to complete projects earlier started, urgency to bring ideas and plans to fruition because you have reached 70, the proverbial three score and ten. Three score and ten seems to be regarded as the dividing line between living and dying, even though many people don’t reach it and some people exceed it. But, ironically, this is no longer the age for urgency because age and its deadly claws have taken urgency away from your steps, your voice and your actions.

Your sense of urgency at 70 is stymied by the drawbacks of age and, if a disease accompanies it, your urgency is broken into small steps. You walk slowly, gingerly, sometimes with a walking stick to stabilise your steps. The swagger is gone, the spring is out. Your feet can step on an ant but may not kill it. There is a reluctant dragging of the feet, an uncoordinated choreography of distressed movement. This is the age of “where are my glasses?” when they are just sitting right there on your nose. I hope I haven’t made life at 70 look very dreadful. This script is basically a generalisation and not an exercise in specificity about ageing.

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In the language of the street and aviation, we often say that old people have already collected their boarding passes and are only waiting for their flights to be called. They are at the departure lounge and have no idea whether their flight will depart on time or will be delayed. This flight is never cancelled and will never be cancelled because it is not organised by uncaring and irresponsible Nigerian airlines. It is organised by Someone who is eminently efficient: God. But this is one occasion anyone would be happy to have his flight either cancelled or delayed. It never happens.

At 70, you have lost the fear of 70, the fear that had been gnawing at your vitals as to whether or not you would reach that mythical age of septuagenarianism. If you have brought up your children well, you are assured that those children will lengthen the family tree in a way that brings honour to the family and to themselves.

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As you were walking towards 70, you must have had your travails. Travails are everybody’s lot. No one goes through life without going through travails. They are the hurdles we must skip over, the roadblocks we must go through and the thorns we must part in order to reach the roses. Travails are challenges that test our will and bring out the best in all of us. They are not stones on which we must break our heads. They are tunnels through which we must pass in order to reach the silver lining ahead. These travails may be the loss through death of one or two parents, a bad patch at school or at work, a broken friendship, unanticipated enemies, a bad business deal, a road, rail, water or air accident. Or it may be a sudden discovery in your system of an unknown ailment with an unknown cure, which may make it difficult for you to reach your manifest destiny. Such challenges, such travails, such tribulations are part of any person’s historic journey. Those are the fragments that constitute your story and your history and your life’s abiding narrative.

History is a mixed yarn, the good and the bad go together. Your story will never be complete except you also mention your successes, big or small. It may be that quick decision that you took, which saved somebody’s life, or marriage, or relationship or career and turned someone’s trajectory in a different and edifying direction. You may think nothing of it, you don’t count them as one of your blessings but he who gives blessings receives some for himself and his family without knowing. This is one of your success stories. Success stories don’t always have to be big. They only have to be that: success stories. In life, everybody falls down but, according to Avery’s Observation, “it does not matter if you fall down, as long as you pick up something from the floor while you get up.”

If you have not accomplished all your heart’s desires at 70, don’t be despondent. Nobody ever does. You simply need to thank God for the ones you have accomplished for, if they were good deeds, they have added to the betterment of the society and humanity. That is where you could derive fulfillment from as a contributor to the well-being of the community of humanity.

The longevity age in Nigeria is said to be about 53 years. Anyone who has gone past 53 is extremely lucky because, in Nigeria, there are many things that make life brutish and short. A short list: fumes from I-better-pass-my-neighbour generators, petrol tanker fire, a house that collapses like a house of cards, fake drugs from India, expired tyres from China, expired drugs from pharmacies, misdiagnosis by doctors, bullets from hired assassins, armed robbers and kidnappers, accidental discharge from drunken policemen, extra-judicial murder from security personnel, etc, etc. Anyone who survives beyond 53 years in Nigeria, can call himself a cat with nine lives. Ours is a tough country in which to live. No question about it. However, Nigerians are devouring longevity literature and are living long, even though they may be in the minority. Mr. Akintola Williams, Nigeria’s leading accountant, has just marked his 99th year on earth. He still moves about, bent by age, but admirable in his well-cut suits and ties. We look forward to his 100th next year.

Akintola Williams; Emma Morano – world’s oldest person

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Longevity is determined by two factors, namely (a) genes and (b) lifestyle. According to longevity literature, our genes determine 35 percent of our longevity. Since we did not choose our parents and grandparents, we have no control over the 35 percent of our lifespan. That had already been established by the time we were born. However, we can do a lot with the remaining 65 per cent. We are informed that each stick of cigarette can take away seven minutes of our lives. So, it is either you puff it and give away some part of your life or you ignore the “pass jot” invitation of your friends and live a little longer. Alcohol, if it must be taken, must be done in moderation. Soft drinks with high sugar content are dangerous. High sugar consumption can lead to diabetes and severe tooth problems, we are told. Doctors also advise that we reduce calorie intake, cut out red meat, go for fruits, vegetables and plenty water. Besides, regular and vigorous exercise is said to be a long life tonic. Above all these, most people accept that there are some unseen fingers in people’s lives: God. So, fast, pray and give alms and you may live longer than you would have.

In some advanced countries, there are geriatric centres, which take care of old people. These centres are equipped to take care of the many ailments that afflict old people, all at the same time. Experts in various fields of medicine and well-being are on hand to attend to them. In Nigeria, there is only one known geriatric centre established at the University of Ibadan by Chief Tony Anenih a few years ago. That we have only one such facility in a huge country like Nigeria speaks to our pathetic lack of care for aged people, who have given the best part of their adult lives for the betterment of their country. That is also why the neglect or poor treatment of pensioners by some state governments is so abhorrent and heartless. Some private sector organisations give preferential treatment to the young and the aged but there is no such government policy for vulnerable groups generally.

A few months ago, I was at a Zenith Bank branch on Acme Road in Ikeja and I got a pleasant surprise. I was in the queue waiting to present my cheque for encashment. A pretty young official of the bank came to me and said: “Please, sir, come and sit down here. I will get the cheque cashed for you.” She took the cheque from me and returned speedily with the money. I had to ask for her name because she did not know me and I did not know her. She was just helping an old man on a queue. I don’t know if that is the policy of the bank but the young lady, Mrs. Enoho Okpako, impressed me endlessly as a symbol of courtesy and respect and customer-friendly disposition, which you do not find in many Nigerian institutions. Since she did not know me before she did the favour I assumed that that is the way she is. The bank is lucky to have someone like that. That impression that Mrs. Okpako gave me is long-lasting because you get to meet a lot of disrespectful people in offices in Nigeria. It is as if they are saying to old people in their hearts “why doesn’t this one die and stop coming here to bother us?” That may be an uncharitable way to put it, but there is a definite loss of respect for the etiquette of proper public engagement, especially among young people. In this era of cellphonemania, many of them show little interest in listening to the customer. They are more interested in yammering on the phone with their ears blocked.

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