In Defence of Older Citizens



Roy Volkwyn

"He's had a good innings. It's time to consider letting him go peacefully."

In South Africa, and indeed in most countries and societies around the world, as people become older, they increasingly play a lesser role in life, have less social interaction with others, and are likely to stay mostly at home, or be confined to an old age home.

So it came as no surprise when the elderly white haired professor told me, on the Wednesday morning, when referring to my father, that, "He's had a good innings".

I think he mentioned that sentence twice. I'm not exactly sure of the words he used after that, but it was something like: "Its time to consider letting him go peacefully". Shortly before my father's illness, a story that made headlines in South Africa was that of a man, aged somewhere in his late fifties I think, who was told he would no longer receive dialysis treatment at a state hospital. His family had said they could not afford to buy a dialysis machine, so there was much controversy about this man effectively being condemned to die because it was deemed that scarce dialysis machines should be used by people with a better chance of survival.

It seems as though the State is not interested in the treatment of older people with a serious illness or requiring costly treatment.

In my father's case though, he never received costly medical treatment, as far as I can ascertain, he received only basic nursing comfort care. A colleague at work said to me days after my father's funeral, after I related briefly his traumatic final struggle: "he was 93, after all". My sister Barbara, when relating his undignified death to a favourite relative of my late father, was told: he was 93 after all". While old people were valued for their knowledge and experience in earlier times (though attorneys and medical doctors are generally still valued for their experience when they are very old), today society regards them of having no value, unless they happen to be very famous, like South Africa's elder statesman, Nelson Mandela.

My immediate reply to the professor, was that my father was no ordinary 93 year old. He played golf, regularly exercised on various fitness appliances including a motorised treadmill, and drove himself wherever he wanted to go to. He was mentally active too, and kept himself busy doing a variety of things, including growing orchids, and studying German using a variety of German grammar books. He was, up till the time of his stroke, fighting a legal battle to protect the interests of 10 000 policyholders of the APO Burial Society. My father was most concerned that the impending sale of the APO Burial Society could have been to the detriment of these mostly poor policyholders, which in the worst case, could have left them without funeral cover if the business had collapsed after its sale.

I did not get the impression that the professor had really listened to me. I guess modern society has been conditioned to undervalue the role of older citizens. I of course had been used to having a father much older than those of my school friends and my peers. A week after I turned 13, my father turned 60. My sister Barbara, who is several years younger than me, had likewise grown up with an elderly father. Although he sold his legal practice (after both his sons chose careers other than Law) he continued to work for the company he founded, Isaac Volkwyn and Co. for many years. He never retired from practising Law. While in his 90s, he continued to do conveyancing for other attorneys (many attorneys never completed conveyancing examinations, so there is a demand for qualified conveyancers). After his death, we learnt that he used to regularly visit a young attorney, and ask him to read out the latest Law Reports. Which he would then debate with this young attorney. Although he left the teaching profession over 50 years before his death, he never lost interest in education. He took an active interest in the education of his children, and later grandchildren and I'm sure his first great-grandchild. The day he died, among the items taken from the boot of his car was a thick book "The Education of the Child". It was the 1935 edition, and no doubt, IT Volkwyn had purchased this book within a few years after its printing.

Yes, professor, my father had a good innings. But he had prepared very carefully to score a century, and even go beyond a century. He was a great sports lover, but we never gave him a sporting chance. The doctors did not even try to let him reach his century.

To public hospitals around the world, I have this to say: If you do not, for any reason, really want to treat very old people with a serious illness, don't tell the family they should seriously consider withholding treatment/medication so that the patient can die quickly. Rather tell the family to take the patient home.

A few famous people of modern times who reached a ripe old age.

Many people over the age of 80 have enriched our world. Andrés Segovia (1893-1987) considered to be the father of the modern classical guitar movement, gave musical performances until the year he died, aged 94. Pianist Arthur Rubenstein could give dazzling solos at the age of 90. The music CD "Buena Vista Social Club" caused an international sensation when released in 1997. The stars of this Cuban music CD were mostly elderly musicians in their 60s and 70s. Pianist Reuben Gonzalez was 77 years old when this recording was made. Dr. Arnold Beckman was one of America's greatest scientists. An educator, inventor, civic leader, philanthropist and humanitarian, he lived a productive life until he died aged 104. He was chairman emeritus of Beckman Instruments, Inc. (now known as Beckman Coulter, Inc.) up till his death.

"Dr. Beckman was an inquisitive young man until the day he died."