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Sunday, June 6, 2004

Slow down the warehousing of the old

LOS ANGELES -- In Asia, though not everywhere in the region, older people tend to be regarded differently from their counterparts in America. In many places, they're not even spurned. In some, they are even revered. Imagine.

You know how it often is in America. Old people are looked upon either as excess baggage or as lepers: Do not touch them or you will contract whatever is inside them that is making them age, and thus you could prematurely catch the dreaded "aging disease."

In some parts of Asia, the reverse is true. Because people there can live for a long time -- due to diet, less urbanization, the deep consolation of Asian religions, tender family care, who knows? -- older people are sometimes afforded special status. The reasoning goes like this: If they have lived so long, they must possess some special life force. Suppose that secret spirit of healthy longevity can be transmitted and absorbed.

Find this hard to believe? In fact, it is not unusual in parts of Asia for young people to almost ritualistically want to touch grandma and grandpa so as to tap into that longevity energy. The opposite of being lepers, not to mention geezers, old people in effect promise their young relations the good destiny of a long life, surrounded by a caring family.

This lovely thought, however, might in a few decades prove a mere nostalgic memory. For Asia is changing, perhaps not for the better. Low birthrates throughout the region are increasingly common. The rising average age of the population is making the statistically unchallenged economists edgy (this may be a good sign, though, because economists rarely predict anything of major importance), the learned demographers despondent and the responsible politicians groping for answers.

In some traditional Asian societies, American-type generation gaps are surfacing. This is certainly the case in South Korea, though the Internet and lack of generational memory are likely responsible for the cleavage. South Korea leads the world in Internet usage, and those young people who use the Internet (which is most of them) tend to have more liberal political attitudes than older people (who are not frequent surfers).

In Asia, noticeably, leaders tend to be older. This doesn't make them any better or worse, but it reflects a relative respect for age as somehow correlated with experience and wisdom.

Take the recently installed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Nobody lifted an eyebrow over the fact that he is 71. In America, when Ronald Reagan reached that esteemed age, some people said he was too old to be president (he may not have been your cup of tea, but whatever he was, he wasn't too old).

Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister of Japan, and Hu Jintao, the head of China, are practically "youth movement" figures at 61. Goh Chok Tong, Singapore's prime minister, who is stepping down voluntarily later this year, hardly looks his age (63), but a half-dozen years ago he helped shepherd through the Maintenance of Parents Act, which makes it difficult for children to abandon improvident parents.

The fact that Singapore, often on the cutting edge of public policy in the region, felt compelled to pass such a law suggests that Asia could still go America's way, of course, turning senior citizens into commodities that can produce profits. With increasing globalization, and Asian modernization (which can mean two-payroll families and less time for the elders), multinational "retirement homes" and "senior-citizen hospices" could conceivably dot the Asian landscape like so many McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. Not a pretty sight.

Look before you leap, Asia. By and large, the warehousing of our old people is one of the West's less admirable practices. We haul them off to environments where the quality of the food and care is constantly eroded by profit-margin pressures, where the "retirement home" atmosphere is as warm as a clammy banker foreclosing on an old woman's mortgage, and the proprietors can't wait for another troublesome elder to die so they can sign up the next paying "customer."

Asia, stick with your old ways here: In this respect, it is superior to ours. Try to slow down the globalization of retirement through commercialization.

Resist excessive Western materialism. Living well should not require abandoning all values -- and your parents. Our older generations and their memories and their ties to family deserve to be preserved for as long (and as well) as possible.

So, whenever you get a chance, reach out and touch someone -- preferably someone much older. You may be in that spot yourself someday.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, recently experienced, in a matter of weeks, the death of his mother, his uncle and his aunt. Copyright 2004 Tom Plate

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