I used to host a radio program for senior citizens. I became interested in the welfare of our senior citizens later on and became a social worker, and have spent 20 years working with the elderly. Nowadays, people come up to me and ask how it’s possible for them to age gracefully. By aging gracefully they usually mean that they want the following: financial security, soundness of body and mind, some form of distraction or amusement, and friends to share the joys of everyday life.
Aging, however, is not an easy affair at all. The four hardships of old age, it is said, are disease, poverty, loss of purpose, loneliness, and exclusion. It is difficult to even imagine suffering from these hardships when one is young. The long journey of aging starts with acknowledging such difficulties and making peace with them. Hardships and pain await us on the way. At the same time we are enlightened to the joys and pleasures of old age that we were unaware of in our youth. Finding these joys and pleasures are the key to aging gracefully. The following books provide invaluable guidance towards that path.
Park Wansuh: The Loneliness of You; Sympathy for Bok-hee
Aging brings many changes in our selves and in our hearts. Our relationships with family and friends also change. Park Wansuh’s fiction is as good an any scholarly tome on the subject. Her work is even more realistic than real life, as she herself is in her 70s. Her works are not comparable with the works of younger writers who are not able to draw on the same kind of experience.
One of the stories in the collection The Loneliness of You, “Dried Flowers,” depicts the romance and parting of an elegant woman in her 60s and a dashing older gentleman. The story shows that old age has nothing to do with falling in love or the pangs of drifting apart. “For Longing,” one of the stories in Sympathy for Bok-hee, tells of an old lady who settles down in Saryang Island with a soul mate she has found late in life. “Candlelit Table” is the story of an old couple that live where they can see the window of their son’s house but cannot visit him as they please. Their son and his family, in turn, live with their lights turned off so they can pretend they are not at home. The stark reality that parents and children today are reluctant to admit is exposed for all to see. The story is unsettling, more truthful than real life.
The stories on old age and the daily lives of the elderly are richer in detail than any textbook on welfare for the elderly. Experience, it seems, is superior to mere information in this case. The lives of the seniors in these stories help one imagine what life may be like later on.
1. Sympathy for Bok-hee
Park Wansuh, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2007, 302p, ISBN 9788932018140
2. The Loneliness of You
Park Wansuh, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
1998, 303p, ISBN 893643652x
Kim Yol-kyu: De Senectute
The author is a former university professor. At the age of 60 he goes back to his hometown and takes up farming. He drinks tea, listens to music, and writes. His retirement is as enviable as one might wish for. The author does not brag about the peaceful life he enjoys, however. He writes, in an unaffected way, about the true meaning of old age and the hidden beauty and strength, and the joys and pleasures he has discovered.
Words like senile, infirm, decrepit, worn-out, feeble, and frail are not the most pleasant words one associates with old age. Words like ‘veteran,’ ‘weathered,’ ‘wise,’ ‘sage,’ ‘seasoned,’ and ‘mature,’ however, are more than welcome. The author thus gently points out that old age has its virtues. His positive attitude towards old age is apparent on every page.
Most of the time when we think of old age we think of numbers, of the ever-growing aging population, of the increasing burden of health care and welfare costs. The picture the author paints of the golden years, however, with his gentle allusions to art and literature, puts this view to shame. Our default stance has been to think of the elderly as a problem. We think of senior citizens as a burden on younger generations. This is unfair. The elderly are just like us. They are simply older than we are.
This book speaks of an active old age, a dignified old age, an old age beyond loneliness that causes the reader to think about his or her present life. The author’s advice based on his own experiences at the ripe old age of 70 pushing 80 is more practical than any self-help book. He shows that old age and retirement can be as enjoyable as any stage of life.