Thoughts on Aging

by industriousants

I like to think of Japan as having 6 seasons; spring, rainy, summer, typhoon, autumn and winter. Of them all, rainy season is my absolute least favorite. The laundry never dries and the floor and tatami in the house always feels damp. A never-ending battle ensues between me and the mold. The stuff seems to grow faster than I can scrub it away. And let’s not forget all the tropical insects that emerge from their winter slumber looking like they’ve been on some sort of intensive steroid program. The laws of nature should include a clause that states no insect be allowed to grow bigger than a human hand.

Seriously though, the worst part of rainy season isn’t really the rain and the constant need to be totting an umbrella around, and it’s not even having to wear the ridiculous full bodied rain suits that make everyone here look like space men. The hardest part is the absence of the sun. Rainy season started suddenly about 2 weeks ago, hitting full force. One day it was gorgeous, and the next day it poured, and it continued to do that for a solid week straight. By day seven I thought I was going crazy. I felt depressed and edgy and found myself cursing the skies every time I needed to go out and run a simple errand. Insanely, I started reminiscing about how great winter in Canada was compared to this, thinking how wonderful a couple feet of snow would be right now, if only the sun would just come out. Obviously, I was on the brink of madness.

And then, after what seemed like an eternity of torture, it just stopped. And it didn’t just stop for one day. It was almost a solid week of sunshine and perfect weather, skirts and flip-flops and afternoon strolls. It was heaven. On one of these glorious days, my friend Maiko came over and we put our two minds together and made one perfect peach cobbler. Truly, it’s the easiest thing to make in the world, consisting only of canned peaches, butter, flour, and little else. Still, proud of our small accomplishment we sat out on the steps of my small balcony taking in the clear skies and celebrating the not-rain, when an elderly man on his afternoon walk approached us and started up a conversation.

It’s pretty common to see older people out on their walks in my neighborhood and it seems to be a favorite pastime of retired people in our town. What’s amazing is how devoted they are to it. It’s not like they just suddenly decide to take a stroll one afternoon, and the next day they sit at home petting their cat. It’s a routine that they stick to, day in and out. Like clockwork, I daily see the same individuals cruising through my neighborhood, walking at a firm pace and swinging their arms with purpose. One man i’ve befriended takes his walk twice a day. He often likes to stop and chat with me while I am out tending to my small potted garden. I can never really understand what he is saying, or what most Japanese people over 60 years of age are talking about, because they speak in an older, local form of the language that even my native speaking colleagues have a hard time catching. Still, somehow we understand each others feelings and communicate in other ways. He’ll shake his head and furrow his brow regretfully at my yellowing tomato plant, and I’ll nod in agreement and sigh deeply over my complete lack of gardening expertise.

On this particular day, I didn’t recognize the gentleman that approached us, but part way through the conversation he made it clear that he was familiar with us. It’s not all that surprising really. Everyone within a five block radius ‘knows’ us…maybe not by name, but a tall white man totting around a surf board on his bicycle is pretty hard to miss, and so is an overly pregnant Indian woman. He was finely dressed in slacks that looked almost new, but by the cut and material, they were probably at least half my age. He also sported a classy gray fedora. Looking at him was like looking back in time. I could catch some of his Japanese, but he spoke quickly and mumbled some of his words, so Maiko needed to do most of the translating. I asked him about his walking. 10,000 steps, he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his small electronic pedometer. 10,000 steps, or roughly about 5 km every day. Really, I felt like it was nothing short of amazing. Lately, I don’t think I take as many steps in a week. He in turn asked how long I’d lived in Japan and how long I thought I would stay. I told him, and he went on to tell us that he had lived abroad once, building dams in Vietnam just before the war broke out. He had thought it was a dirty place, but he’d loved it. Just when he was getting comfortable, he was forced to leave. He imagined that it would be the same for us when it was our time to go too.

Silently through all this, I was calculating in my mind how old he was without directly asking. If he was in Vietnam just before the Americans got involved, then he could be no younger than 80 years old, but possibly even older. Still, here he was, out on his daily stroll, looking spry as ever and talking quite sharply about his days as an overseas laborer back in the mid 50’s.

After a few more polite exchanges the man was on his way, working up to his daily 10,000 steps. It was a short conversation, but one that left an impression on me. You don’t have to look very far to realize that Japan is a place where you are literally surrounded on all sides by senior citizens. The elderly are everywhere and they are obvious, not because they are sick or decrepit, but for reasons completely opposite. In comparison to seniors back home in Canada, they really don’t act their age. I’ve looked on, amazed, as ancient women, hunched from years of bowing and picking rice, jog by me with their walkers. Frail looking men cycle the streets like they own them. Hobby clubs made up mostly of retirees and housewives meet weekly without fail to learn English, or photography or foreign cooking techniques. They are out grocery shopping, doing laundry, farming, taking the bus, working part time jobs and even driving scooters. On top of all this, they are a sharp, lucid bunch, with many amazing stories to tell, if only you have the Japanese (and local dialect) to understand them.

Although retirement homes are beginning to make their appearance, I have a feeling the Japanese consider them a last resort option, and possibly even shameful, especially if they are capable enough to care for their elderly family. I have an exercise at school where the students list the immediate members of their family, and without any sort of direction they more often than not include their grandparents. Rightfully so. If they don’t reside under the same roof, chances are they live just next door, down the street or within a short driving distance, and likely spend a lot of time together. This is just one of many distinct difference I’ve noticed between Japan and North America. The elderly here are not as easily institutionalized as in the west. There is an unspoken obligation children have to their parents that seems universally understood by the Japanese. At least one child, usually the eldest son, is designated as the primary care giver at some point in time. This means that if they are an only child, and have dreams of living abroad, or of taking a great job offer on the other side of the country, they may have to forfeit their own wants to live closer to their family and personally ensure the livelihood of their parents. Aside from a healthy diet and exercise, a strong family presence probably contributes to the long life and positive attitude of Japanese senior citizens that I so often observe in our town.

The Japanese always leave me a little awestruck. Just like when the Tsunami hit, the resilience and determination of the surviving communities to move forward and rebuild continues to be inspiring. Of course, I don’t believe that character trait is a localized one. It seems built into the hearts and minds of the entire nation. Even here, in our sleepy little neighborhood, there are examples of that die-hard mentality manifesting in smaller but equally telling actions; the 70 year old barber that fixes the tiles on his shops roof; the retired grandmothers that continue to plant and harvest vegetables by the river and run their own private veggie stand in the market; the man who sports a classy fedora and pockets 10,000 steps a day. There is grace and purposefulness in their existence. They are visually present, mentally sound and actively contributing to society. It is a refreshing revelation that makes my own unstoppable aging process a little more hopeful and a little less terrifying.

June 15, 2011