Skip Bandele reflects on life and his world – as he sees it.
LAST MONTH, the oldest person in the world died at the age of 116. Maria Esther de Capovilla passed away in an Ecuadorian hospital following a short illness, while her family planned her 117th birthday party.
She was born in 1889, the same year as Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler, married in 1917 and was widowed in 1949. She had already reached 50 years of age when World War Two broke out in 1939. Maria credited her long life to drinking fresh donkey milk and eating three good meals a day. She never smoked and only indulged in a small glass of wine with her lunch – all of which means that I will probably not be threatening her record!
Her likely successors as the oldest living people in the world, are american, Elizabeth Bolden, also 116 and sprightly 115-year-old Emiliano Mercado Del Toro from Puerto Rico. Maria de Jesus, a 113-year-old Portuguese lady, is Europe’s ‘senior citizen’ – there must be something about the name Maria. If you think these life spans are unusual, prepare yourselves as you read on.
In a year when a youthful Bill Clinton heads a host of celebrities and film stars turning 60, it becomes more and more obvious that we have never, in our evolution, grown as old as today. In fact, the current sixty-something’s are yesteryears’ forty-odds’. The combination of modern medicine, healthy diets, improved hygiene and the occasional hip replacement has helped us stay young and live longer.
Nature did not intend for us to outlive our usefulness, or our ability to reproduce, yet we extend our life expectancy by an average of three months for every year that passes. In 1840, Swedish women were famed for their longevity, managing to stay alive until the ripe old age of 45. Today, their Japanese sisters reach 85 without so much as dropping a chop stick.
One hundred years ago, couples could approach the altar with a clear conscience, promising to stay together “till death do us part”, war, pestilence and natural catastrophes normally ensured that they kept to their vows and midlife crisis was unheard of.
Today, our children will, in all likelihood, live to be a hundred, relegating the Marias to be an everyday occurrence. Above all, this state of human affairs creates huge amounts of time, post retirement leisure and untold freedom to enjoy the increasing number of years given to us. However, the sad reality is, more and more men and women are becoming trapped in the phenomenon of youth culture, desperately concentrating on remaining eternally young.
Growing old gracefully is definitely passé. Most of us lied in our teens in order to appear older, only to shave anything up to 20 years off our true age thereafter, in an attempt to defy the passage of time. I remember my mother staying 39 for ages!
We try to postpone the actual process of growing up, while keeping a weary eye on thickening waists and receding hairlines, often failing to notice how ridiculous we appear to others still firm and carefree in body and spirit.
The fountain of youth becomes an obsession, deep tanning oil is replaced by sun block and the bathroom overflows with repairing, revitalizing and regenerating creams of every description, so expensive that the little hair that remains would stand on end if the cost would be associated with any other household product.
Antiaging has become synonymous with anti-terror. It is no longer enough to be considered a well preserved pensioner, capable of mowing your own lawn, albeit at a more sedate pace. Flexibility, mobility, activity and, above all, attractiveness, are today’s self-imposed leitmotifs, a neurotic rat race to preserve youth at all costs. Dousing yourself in a combination of moisturiser and hair products does not suffice in the 21st century. Botox, collagen, face lifts, nips and tucks, Viagra and retro-fashion may let some parents, clogging the radio waves with 80s and 90s requests, appear younger than their stressed-out offspring struggling to make up the pension short fall but, the truth is that the world is facing a pensioner plague of enormous proportions.
How degrading is it that a book entitled Forever Young has become a huge international bestseller? I am quite happy with Neill Young. Human ingenuity has now even managed to defy the normally finite biological clock. IVF fertility treatments, artificial insemination and egg-implants, transplants or God only knows what other genetic trickery, is creating radiantly expectant mothers in their 60s, something as unnatural to my old-fashioned sensibilities as Julio Iglesias fathering another child in his 70s shortly before his natural death.
Already, there are more elderly people in the world than children, a fact not lost on the retail and leisure sectors. The proportionately high purchasing power of the over 50s consumer group has prompted a marketing explosion, using every term or slogan other than ‘old’ to sell to their ever increasing public – much along the lines of the fashion business not promoting ‘clothes for fat people’, but garments under the label ‘big is beautiful’. Hence, you are invited to join senior tours, golden days, silver service or any of a thousand similar leisure activities or holidays.
To me, growing old is not a dirty word, more a gradual process that brings relief and a heightened sense of my own mortality. I, for one, do not want to end up with a face so rigid I am only able to have one fixed expression, even if I could afford it. Getting older is a form of escape from the pressures of having to be beautiful or good-looking, not a desperate existence on the run from its natural manifestations. It is about acceptance, being as young as you feel and, if you don’t, that’s ok too!
Reaching a state of inner peace and tranquility, a readiness to enjoy is important. It is your attitude, not your artificially enhanced physical attributes; the way you manage your happiness and fulfillment as opposed to your make-up that really matters. Older means better, if not wiser, we cannot turn back the clock, but we can cherish the memories while adding a few more chapters – that is the challenge.