In every country I’ve been to – childhood and adolescence is a thing of wonder. Something to celebrate. Something to get right. Something to remember forever. So many people are obsessed with baby photos. Of showing you photos of their kids and grandkids and all the little people in their lives.
Getting older, however – is a thing to dread. Greys. Wrinkles. Health problems. And just how in the world are we going to pay for all those years when we’re not working. I live in Japan – a country with the world’s highest life expectancy. The elderly are everywhere. I must admit, I love them. I really really do. They’re my favourite age group to spend time with.
We should respect our elders not because they need us now that they’re old. But because we need them because we’re young.
I spend a large chunk of my day working with people who are considerably younger than me. As much as I love my kids, there are days when they drive me up the wall. Trying to prepare children for impending adulthood is a challenge. I also work with teenagers. They’re at that age where they’re half-adult half-children. Whether your teenage years were good or bad – one thing’s for sure, they were memorable.
Whilst we may talk about the economic realities of an ageing population – not much attention is given to how big a contribution the elderly actually make to society. In Japan in particular, many elderly are in charge of taking care of their grandkids. After a life of working super hard – they finally get to let go and pursue their own hobbies and interests.
For many people here, retirement is the start of a second career that’s not as focused on money, raising kids and running a household. It’s when those responsibilities in life have been met and one is free to pursue other priorities. The elderly in Japan are by far the most fascinating people I’ve met here. Their stories are vivid, colourful and just full of heart.
I remember my 25th birthday distinctly. There was this nagging sense that I wasn’t getting any younger. That I was getting older. That this life business doesn’t last forever. That there were so many things to squeeze in and achieve before the big scary 30 came around. That if I didn’t achieve it all I was one big failure.
As a woman, people kept nagging me about how I should get onto it if I wanted to have a baby. At the time, I didn’t want kids. A part of me secretly feared that I might change my mind one day and it would all be too late.
Fortunately, I think differently these days. We don’t have to tick off that checklist of milestones to prove that we’ve made it. Yes, we may accumulate intelligence. We may master empathy. We may even make more money than we know what to do with. But true wisdom can only come with experience.
Do I automatically respect all people who are considerably older than me? Of course not. Do I agree with all the advice they have to give me? Of course not. But we young people need our elders to guide us. Without them we have no map, no clue, no idea. I’m lucky that I’ve met so many wise ones in Japan. It is my hope that I will age as gracefully as the elders who’ve set such a remarkable example for me.
I no longer live my life trying to tick off those milestones. There’s only one thing I know for sure. We’re all on our individual journeys. And when I get old – I know that the story I will come to tell will be mine and mine alone.