When the finance minister announced a tax exemption of Rs 5 lakh for assessees aged 80 and above, my first impulse was to jump for joy and celebrate. But that did not last. Soon I realized that if any of my investments brings Rs 10,000 or more as interest, there will be a deduction of tax at source (TDS), even if I am not in the tax net. For several months to follow, I will be chasing a refund, until I realize that TDS is a one-way street for hundreds of taxpayers like me.
The word that, perhaps, is inevitably linked to old age is senility. Senior, senate, senescence, senility are words formed from the Latin root, sen, which means old. In medicine, there is another set of words referring to old age. The root here is ger-, which linguists have traced back to Sanskrit jara which means old. Gerontology is the study of social, psychological and political aspects of ageing. The word was coined by Ilya Mechnikov in 1903 from Greek geron, “old man”.
Old age is seen as something to be kept at bay as long as possible. The fear of old age is gerontophobia; it can also mean fear of old persons. Government by the aged is gerontocracy. Mao Zedong led China till he died at the age of 82. Deng Xiaoping wielded power till he was 90. Russia was a gerontocracy for nearly two decades, until March 1985, when the dynamic, ambitious Mikhail Gorbachev, at 54 the youngest member of the politburo of that time, assumed power. Gerontology is distinguished from geriatrics, which is the branch of medicine that deals with the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and problems specific to old persons. In the private language of doctors, the geriatric ward is jocularly referred to as departure lounge!
Old age has received considerable attention in literature. Bernard Shaw’s Methuselah is a plea for enhanced longevity. Methuselah was a Hebrew patriarch who lived for 969 years. The conflict between youth and age is portrayed in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Till close to the finish of the novel, Dorian remains young, and ageing takes place only in the picture. In the end, Dorian grows old and the picture recovers the handsome looks.
The recent Amul Baby exchange between Rahul Gandhi and former Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan calls to mind a well-known French saying, Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait, translated as “If only youth knew, if only age could”. A witty paraphrase of this quote runs: when you have the capacity you don’t have the chance, and when you have the chance you don’t have the capacity.
The myth of the fountain of youth is another manifestation of the desire to keep old age away. The story goes that the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon travelled in search of a spring whose waters could restore youth. He associated this mythical fountain with Florida.
Closely allied to this tale is the story of Shangri-La. James Hilton’s book of the same name made the story popular. Shangri-La is believed to be a paradise on earth, a land of eternal youth, located in the neighbourhood of Tibet.
If, thanks to advances in geriatric medicine and better care of the aged, people live longer, there can be a drain on the government’s resources to meet the costs of pension and healthcare. This is sometimes referred to as a “demographic time bomb”. By 2030 almost one in three persons in advanced countries will be older than 60 years. In India the number of older persons will more than double between 2001 and 2026. Recently, The Economist raised the question of finding the resources needed to provide health and social services to the aged (“An age-old problem”, 26 May). In 2007, the government of India enacted the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, which makes maintenance of parents and senior citizens by children and relatives obligatory. There are many, however, who believe that this pessimistic attitude towards ageing is an instance of tunnel vision.
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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