Among the several magazines that I still read regularly, going back to my college-going days (Royal College Curepipe), one that leaves me in wonder at every issue is the National Geographic. The latest copy of October 2015 features on its cover the ‘new ancestor’ that ‘shakes up our family tree’ with the big headlines titled ‘ALMOST HUMAN’.
The article is about the discovery in a dolomite cave system known as the Rising Star, 30 miles to the north-west of Johannesburg in South Africa, of a large collection of human fossils (in September 2013), and the recent public announcement that they were those of a species that could be considered as a ‘new ancestor’ of ours because of evidence built up since to show that they were ‘almost human’.
Fast forward from those millions of years ago to a short item in the same issue about Jimmy Carter in which he is asked three questions about his work since he left the White House. The introduction reads as follows: ‘Jimmy Carter, 90, was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981. In 1982 he and his wife, Rosalynn, founded the Carter Centre to work on peace, justice, and health issues; in 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This interview took place before Carter’s August 12 announcement that he’d been diagnosed with cancer and would seek treatment’. Meanwhile, though, he would still be pursuing the centre’s ‘next big challenge’, ‘the horrible abuse of women and girls around the world’.
90-plus, I reflected, and still going strong or, as the well-known expression goes, ‘alive and kicking’. In the health field, the Carter Centre is recognised for its remarkable work in the elimination of the dread disease affecting mainly West Africa known as oncocerchiasis or ‘river blindness’ because the parasite that causes it lives in the rivers where the people go to wash, bathe and fish. From millions when the centre began its campaign in the 1980s, covering over 23 000 villages, the number of patients – which is reported yearly at the Annual Assembly of the World Health Organisation in May – has dwindled to 120, which gives hope that the disease will soon be eradicated (as has been the case with smallpox in 1982, and soon hopefully polio – Pakistan and Afghanistan being the only two countries left harbouring polio for rather specific reasons).
As I had been attending the Annual Assembly of WHO during my tenure as Director General Health Services I was naturally keeping up with the issue of river blindness, but as these things go also with the other activities not only of the Carter Centre but of Jimmy Carter himself. In some admiration I must say — disregarding his record as President about the handling of what became known as the Iranian hostage crisis, which was heavily criticized at the time – because not only has he kept himself so actively busy pursuing the work of the Carter Centre but he has been a prolific writer, having authored nearly 25 books since, as well as preaching every Sunday at his local church.
The phenomenon of ‘healthy ageing’
Although medicine and medical science are only recently waking up to the phenomenon of ‘healthy ageing’, with a plethora of advice and recommendations about lifestyle (food, exercise, mental activity, socialising, etc) that maintain one to a ripe old age, I have not had to await these developments to know about healthy ageing. There have been some remarkable elders in my own family, and in my medical practice and life experience as a whole I have come across many equally impressive ones.
To start with, I have had the good fortune of having seen my dada (paternal grandfather) live to 96, his sister to 80-plus, two chachas (paternal uncles) to 85. And I know why they managed to do so: they were ever active, especially my dada, gardening and consuming with the family home-grown vegetables and fruits without using any pesticides and fertilizers, trimming the traditional bamboo hedges, walking to the market or shops as we had no car, doing house chores almost day-long, not to speak of the kind of socializing which we now look down upon – visits to relatives (and they visiting us too) mostly by bus and walking, neighbourly exchanges across the bamboo fence which included local gossip and the sharing of garden produce.
Plus a host of other domestic activities (ladies with their knitting and stitching amongst others) that kept one’s body busy (and therefore healthy) and the mind engaged (and therefore helping the brain to remain ‘plastic’), so there was no time to cry over one’s fate (living in relative poverty) or be jealous of others who were better off, living in big houses, driving big cars, and having plenty of money to spend on luxury items and so on and so forth.
Theirs was a life of hard work to keep the pot boiling as it were and tending to the basic needs of the children, and being very strict about their attendance at and progress in school and college. That was the focus of their lives, and their happiness derived from overseeing the next generation readying itself to assume its own responsibility through similar hard work, seriousness in studies, cultivating sound habits and developing sound, enduring relationships.
We know about the centenarians in Okinawa island in Japan, and have read about many others around the world who have done marathons (Milka Singh and recently a 105-year old Japanese man) or have continued to work in their professions, including a few doctors and scientists too. It goes without saying that these people had a passion for whatever they were involved in, and this is no doubt one of the best ‘secrets’ of their good humour, serenity and longevity. And no doubt too the fact that, like with practically all old people, they no longer were busy chasing what at a certain stage of their lives may have been considered essential to lead the ‘good life’, big house, big car, expensive jewellery and clothes and such things.
I have met many happy, active old people in different circumstances, several of whom I have written about in more detail in my earlier articles. During my student days in India, for example, there was the 70-year old ex-professor and head of department of chemistry at the University of Colombo who, at the dharmasala at Sarnath in Benares (where Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya) was doing a PhD in ‘The Comparative Calligraphy of the South-Eastern region’. It was about the development of the Devanagri script and its relation to the scripts used in Indochina, Burma, Thailand. Then there was this 85-year old ex-professor of history who, in November 1967 at the Tourist Centre in Darjeeling, invited me to join him to go to Sandakfu at the foothill of the Himalaya to get a better view of Mount Everest; unfortunately I had to decline for lack of time.
The graceful wrinkles of old age
Locally, during one of our Sunday walks almost twenty years ago, as we were waiting to take a bus to Curepipe in the afternoon at Dubreuil, we met a couple in their 70s who too were waiting for the bus. They had come from Midlands, where they stayed, to tend to the two-acre plot of sugarcane field that they owned. They did this every Sunday, reaching there before sunrise and working several hours before going home to take a well-deserved rest and then continuing with their routine. They looked in the best of health for their age.
Then there was this tall 85-year old man of slender build who came to consult me, again so many years ago, for some pain in the ankle, his only ailment. The years of riding his bicycle from Case Noyale to Baie-du-Cap as a foreman of the road construction works that were being carried out when he was younger had made him ‘top fit’. And he looked every bit so too, in sharp contrast to the 45-year old son who had accompanied him, and believe you me looked older than his father, what with his paunch and the wrinkles on his face. Why, his father had them too, but they were the graceful ones of old age that gave dignity to the face, unlike the premature ones on the son’s face that gave it — and him — a senile appearance.
What to say of the centenarian lady who, at a function at La Sourdine, l’Escalier held for senior citizens who were being honoured (I had accompanied Swami Pranavananda, Spiritual Head of Chinmaya Mission who was the Chief Guest), refused the help of my hand to go on stage: she nimbly climbed the few steps that led there and took her seat. Her face looked fresh, smooth and serene, despite her having lost her 56-year old son some months earlier as I was to learn. I was also told that she lived alone, doing her own cooking and washing. The only help she resorted to was from a person to whom she gave money every Saturday morning to buy vegetables for her at the local market.
Truly has it been said that health is our true wealth, something that alas today’s generation does not realise. If we want to reach old age in good health and live happily till the time to exit has come, the time to prepare for that is when we are still young, by adopting the mode of living that is conducive to that state. It is not all that difficult to do.
As another saying goes, where there is a will there is a way. It’s all laid out for us, the path ahead, by the sages of old. The choice is ours to make, so as to be ‘alive and kicking’, as alive as ‘the hills are alive at the sound of music…’
- Published in print edition on 2 October 2015