During the first week of October we celebrate Older Persons Week and on 1 October it is the International Day of Older Persons.
The theme of the 2017 International Day of Older Persons, is Stepping into the Future: Tapping the Talents, Contributions and Participation of Older Persons in Society.
In my work as a massage therapist, I come into contact with older people very often and I am always impressed with the knowledge, skills and wisdom they have accumulated over the years.
At the same time it saddens me that society and often, older people themselves do not value or apply what they know to improve our world.
The widely held image of older people as sickly, boring, worthless and decrepit cannot be further from the truth. Older people are just that, old. And mostly they are wise with incredible skills of adaptation. Rather than being a burden, they can make a rich contribution to our lives.
Aging is not “lost youth” but a new stage of opportunity and strength. - Betty Friedan
Here is how I know:
It is so typical of you to even study how to grow old, laughed my friend as we were having tea in the garden. She was referring to the research project I had completed for my honours degree in psychology last year.
In a way, I suppose she is right. I do tend to investigate all kinds of topics that interest me on Google all the time.
But preparing myself for old age had not been my motivation for a study exploring the meaning and life satisfaction of older people. I had chosen the research question because I meet so many vibrant and interesting older people in my massage practice and I wanted to understand them better. I wanted to make sense of their mojo.
And off course, students are lazy, no matter what their age - they also made for an easy-to-access group of research subjects.
Our conversation came to mind recently when I saw on the list of South African Health Awareness Days that we are celebrating Older Persons Week from 30 September until 6 October and the International Day of Older Persons on 1 October.
Each year since its declaration in 1990, the United Nations has selected a theme for the commemoration of International Day of Older Persons considering the challenges facing older persons globally during the particular year. All activities during Older Persons Week will focus on this theme.
The theme of the2017 International Day of Older Persons, is Stepping into the Future: Tapping the Talents, Contributions and Participation of Older Persons in Society.
This theme directly links to the conclusions I had reached after doing the research.
It`s not how old you are, it`s how you are old. - Jules Renard
The world we live in is a rapidly aging world. According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (2012, p.12) in 2012, people aged 60 and older made up 12.3 per cent of the global population, that is one in eight persons. They predict that by 2050, that number will rise to almost 22 per cent or one in five persons.
This demographic shift is considered one of the most significant trends of the 21st century evident in both the developing and the developed countries posing great challenges on a global, national and individual levels.
A lot of research has been done in a variety of disciplines such as social sciences, economics and the medical science to explore the quality of life of elderly people and the concepts and concerns related to quality of life. (Netuveli & Blane, 2008; Bowling 2001, Hunt 1997, Rapley 2003 in Hambleton, Keeling & McKenzie, 2008).
But I wanted to know more about older people’s lived experience, their perceptions and their own interpretations of quality of life.
I selected three women between the ages of 71 and 86 who live in middle class suburbs in Strand and Stellenboch, two large towns that form part of larger Cape Town area in the Western Cape, for my study.
Having known all three for many years, I was already very aware that they lived very active lives and were open to new experiences. Let’s be honest any older person who is prepared to come for a massage regularly is not your common or garden variety.
I like doing research but interviewing the three women did not feel like work in any way. It was more like paying each a social visit or kuier as we say in Afrikaans.
I asked them only one question to get the conversation flowing. I wanted them to talk about how they experience the quality of their lives and what it is they think, contributes to the quality of their lives. And talk they did!
After transcribing the long and meandering but fascinating conversations we had, I did the data analysis and identified three major themes that according to the trio contributed to their life satisfaction and quality of life:
This theme tells us about people’s experience of their place in the world - where they fit in, about their place in relation to their intimate circle (family and friends) and their community.
The women placed great emphasis on social belonging and social interaction as adding quality to their lives. They desired to be accepted, remain integrated and involved in the community, friendships and family group.
I labelled this theme active belonging as was clear that belonging is a two way street – you get as good as you give. In order to belong you have to put yourself out there, you have to make an effort to build relationships with others and to avoid isolation. Isolation, all three reasoned, results in an empty, meaningless life.
Research shows that social relations as well as functional ability and activities, may be as pivotal as health status in contributing to quality of life for the elderly.
The ‘good people’ in older people’s lives, according to one study, namely their family, friends, neighbours and home helpers seem to dominate their quality of life experience.
Being part of a community “provides practical, emotional and social support, often reciprocal in nature, translating into a sense of identity, belonging and personal security.”
Having ‘good people’ around is what participants talked about most in the research.
This was borne out in my study. The women valued family members for being there, being with, helping out and making them feel included. Children and grandchildren in particular give meaning to life but so also their elaborate network of friends and ‘church people’.
But with age the practical difficulties increase and the number of opportunities to socialise become less and they miss the interaction.
However older people are very adaptable. To fill the need to talk to friends and family, some of them turn to technology (telephone, email and Skype) to keep in touch.
Another way of fostering a sense of belonging is to help others by getting involved in community service projects. For one of the participants, this takes the form of delivering food to immobile elderly people on behalf of the local service centre for the elderly. Another contributes by visiting people at the local old age home for a chat.
Community service is also combined with ways of keeping active and busy for example knitting jerseys and caps for an organisation involved with babies suffering with cancer, this despite painful and arthritic joints in her hands or church activities such as working at a second-hand clothing shop at her church.
Being involved with neighbours, church groups and community projects help to grow close-knit friendship they consider to be like family. They keep an eye on one another.
SENSE OF AUTONOMY
Autonomy is defined as being independent and determining one’s own life. It is being able to resist social pressures, to think and behave in a particular way, evaluating one’s life by internal standards.
The participants in the study all expressed a desire to remain independent and self-reliant and to keep themselves busy for as long as possible even when forced to adapt to the restrictions of old age.
The desire for self-reliance is an attitude of taking responsibility for oneself.
Interestingly, according to research it seems more important to consider yourself to possess the power over the events of one’s own life.
But despite a strong sense of independence, the women I spoke to are pragmatic. All three still live in their own homes and intend remaining there as long as possible. Yet they know that circumstances might change and that they will have to make decisions to move or to acquire assistance at some stage.
MANAGING OWN THOUGHTS, BEHAVIOUR AND EMOTIONS
The third theme I have identified I called Managing own thoughts, behaviour and affect.
It emerged from the data that all three participants were skilled at self-regulation and were able to reflect on their situation, and monitor their behaviour, thoughts and emotions in a realistic but optimistic manner and alter them in accordance with the demands of the situation.
All three participants took responsibility for their own thoughts and emotions. They had found ways to enhance their own lives through reaching out to others and reaching inwards to draw on their own strengths – managing their own thoughts, using positive self-talk, filling their days with worthwhile activities and finding ways to improve their mood.
They also showed a capacity for gratitude that help them adapt to the difficulties and changes brought about by the aging process.
This supports research showing that the empirical evidence of studies into the quality of life of older people does not support the ‘anecdotal view that old age is a time of psychological despair and vulnerability to emotional distress’. In other words, despite being poor, not well educated, and/or physically unwell, not all older people necessarily consider their quality of live to be poor.
Older people seem to rather experience frequent and varied positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, and gratitude. This helps to build their personal, physical, and intellectual resources and seems to have an "undoing" effect on negative emotions.
One interesting way of managing own thoughts and affect is to express gratitude. Emmon and Crumpler (2000) define gratitude as “an emotional state and an attitude toward life that is a source of human strength in enhancing one's personal and relational well-being’.
The three participants told me how grateful they were for all they had and in particular how much they appreciated people who make life easier and offer support: “Some people are sent your way by God when you need them,” one said. “They make your life easier and offer company. (They are) very important to self care.”
Now why are these findings of interest to a massage therapist?
Here are a few reasons:
Body-mind or mind-body? If you are struggling with physical and mental pain and feel that the dominant health paradigm’s dualistic approach to mind and body seems inadequate to explain anything, I want to talk to you. Join me under the tree in my garden for a cup of rooibos tea and let’s talk massage and SomaSense!