Ageing. The Decadal Indulgence.

Edition #3: Age as a number, Whipple index and age heaping among the old

What happens when you are 90 years old?

People in their 90s tend to give their age in rounded figures, usually the closest multiple of five, i.e., 95 or 100. There is even a term for it – age heaping – adding more years to your age. The 2011 Indian census identified 6 lakh centenarians but less than a lakh that were 95. The Whipple’s Index is used by the UN to account for age heaping.

I recall a visit to a village in Jharkhand where I met a very old woman, and when I asked folks her age, one guy said she was 125 and everybody around nodded. On my next visit, I asked the same question. Another guy said she was around 80. I doubt the old lady was counting or aware of this conversation.

Perception of age starts with the first birthday when your family celebrates you, and you really aren’t aware. You then celebrate the many wonderful years with your friends in school, college and work. In the process of growing up (not ageing yet), you also become eligible to do responsible adult things.

You can seek employment at 14.

You can vote and drive at 18.

You can drink in Andhra Pradesh at 18. If you are in Delhi, you will have to wait 7 more years.

You can be an elected Member of the Parliament at 25. But you need to be 35 and wiser to be the President.

Over time, age becomes a number that we love to indulge and more so when it comes with decadal tones. Life gets benchmarked to 100 and we race towards it grudgingly.

Thirty and officially old.
Big four-O.
Fifty. The half-way mark.
Silver sixty.
Golden eighty.

When you dig deeper, something interesting emerges.

I read this 2014 article, “Why I Hope to Die at 75” by Ezekiel J. Emanuel in The Atlantic, early this week. Ezekiel is a successful oncologist and a controversial figure, and this article is provocative if nothing else. I discussed this article with my dad who had just come back from spending time with my grandmother who is 95 (or thereabouts), is severely limited by mobility, lost much of her memory, and supported by her sons in their early to late 70s and a hired care worker. We discussed human mortality, perceptions of death among his peer group, life after death and even euthanasia. Any conversation about death (=expected end number of ageing),

somehow turns philosophical and spiritual.

What amazed me is the ease with which he had an open conversation about it.

On the other hand, my mom turns 70 in a few days. She never really cared about her birthday, and said, we remind her of her age by wishing her every year and then she forgets it. Until her retirement from a full-time job, she only counted her age by the years left to retire so she can get a pension. She is very good with numbers and has quite a memory.

She has always counted years pegged to a milestone

– my brother’s graduation, a family trip, the wedding of my dad’s last sister and so on – almost to the precise date and details leading up to it. In many ways, she is disengaged from the broader conversation around ageing, and the number game.

The third conversation with an academic was around quality of life (QoL)

among general population. I was told researchers studying ageing generally look at four broad domains – physical, psychological, social and environment – when looking at QoL standards. Various studies have been conducted on this, and across various cross-sections and demographic groups (adults, adolescents, elderly, women, etc.) to understand perceptions using structured surveys. For example, a study by Indian researchers points to education, wealth and family support as good predictors of higher QoL among the elderly.

Across these studies, and in general literature, you would notice adjectives like happy, joyful and successful associated with ‘ageing’.

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