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You can’t plan for bad luck in the long winter of life

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Wisdom is age and age is wisdom. Confucius, summing up his life, said, “At 70 I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the line.” It’s as good a definition of wisdom as any.

The reverence children owed their parents was boundless but not burdensome — joyously given. Not in Confucius’ own day (551-479 B.C.) — by then this was already once-upon-a-time stuff. “Nowadays,” he lamented, “for a man to be filial means no more than that he is able to provide his parents with food. Even hounds and horses are, in some way, provided with food. If a man shows no reverence, where is the difference?”

Confucius sought his ideals in a remote, semimythical past. It must have been nice to grow old then, basking in the reverence your gray hairs and bent back proved you had earned. “When your parents are alive,” Confucius taught, “comply with the rites in serving them; when they die, comply with the rites in burying them; comply with the rites in sacrificing to them.” And “if, for three years, a man makes no change to his father’s ways, he can be said to be a good son.”

You can sift through Confucius’ writings on filial piety, and those of his Japanese disciples at the height of their influence in the 17th and 18th centuries, without coming across a single mention of the problems Shukan Post magazine finds dogging old age today, when, in terms of sheer longevity, the elderly are triumphant as never before. The figures are familiar: 26.7 percent of the population is 65 or older; 12.5 percent 75 or older; by 2045, 21 percent will be 75 or older. Nearly 68,000 Japanese are 100 or older — up from 153 in 1963. Immortality, the immortal dream, may soon, some are saying, be science.

It’s a shame for Shukan Post to spoil the party — and spoil the party it does. To lead a comfortable life post-retirement, it says, you should have savings of ¥30 million. That’ll keep you afloat — if nothing catastrophic happens. Sadly, catastrophe lurks — everywhere. Here’s a short list: illness, the death of a spouse, unemployment, collapse in the value of the house you thought would back you financially, parents’ dementia, spouse’s dementia, your own dementia, or — a possibility almost too nightmarish to mention — all of the latter three occurring simultaneously.

To begin with — who has ¥30 million in savings? Probably not many among the part-time and temporary workers who make up nearly 40 percent of the workforce. “C” (Shukan Post uses letters instead of pseudonyms) had ¥8 million in the bank when he retired — from full-time employment, not part-time — eight years ago at 60, his company’s fixed retirement age. He knew that his savings were insufficient but his boss had good news for him: “You’re a good worker, we’d like you to stay. What do you think? You’ll have to take a salary cut” — from ¥380,000 a month to ¥200,000 — “but we’ll keep you on till 80, if you like.”

He didn’t play hard to get. On his pay and his and his wife’s pensions, living thriftily but not in want, the couple got by, until events took a sad turn a year ago. Business was bad, the company needed to downsize; C was let go. Even with the food budget slashed to a bare minimum, he sees his savings dwindling at a rate of roughly ¥40,000 a month. It’s life on a knife edge.

He’s better off than many — than “D,” arguably, who, visiting his parents after a long absence, noticed a sad deterioration in their conditions. The house was a ruin; the old people seemed abnormally disoriented. They’re well into their 80s; D himself is 65. He took them to a hospital. Both were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He’s staying with them for the time being, doing what he can but, exhausted already, he knows a long-term solution will have to be found, for which money will have to materialize — from where? “What should I do?” he asks plaintively.

There are, in fact, partial solutions — government programs, private initiatives — to many of the purely financial problems that old age gives rise to, and part of Shukan Post’s purpose is to acquaint readers with them, because unknown (as many of them are to many) they are of no use. So to the extent that despair is purely economic, it may prove manageable. But living to 100 and beyond grimly keeping despair at bay seems a cheerless prospect. As does, for that matter, spending your prime years like the ant in the fable, doggedly storing up provisions for the dread winter ahead.

And of course, despair is not purely economic. An ever-present vulnerability is the loss of a loved one — or, if it’s too much to assume a spouse is loved, of a life companion. The loneliness can be crushing. It causes many elderly to sink into lethargy and depression, which take their toll on physical health, which spins a vicious circle of mental and bodily health undermining each other, inescapable except through the exit by which, eventually, we escape all things.

“F” suddenly began suffering stomach pains. He’d just turned 70. “It’s nothing,” he told himself. He’d been healthy all his life. A great believer in the body’s natural curative powers, he had no intention of spending his old age dependent on doctors and hospitals. But the pain grew worse. Diagnosis: cancer. Prescription: surgery, immediately. Cost: ¥500,000.

The operation was successful. Within three weeks, he was back home, back to his old life — more or less. He fears a relapse. It could happen any time. He must prepare — emotionally and financially. He’d looked forward to a postretirement of world travel. No more of that.

A 14th-century priest named Kenko, in elegant jottings known as “Tsurezuregusa” (“The Grasses of Idleness”), set down some thoughts on old age. “The old,” he said, “are as superior to the young in wisdom as the young are superior to the old in looks.” That was the Confucian in him. He also said, “For (an old man) to mingle in society is unbecoming and unseemly.” By “old,” he meant 50.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”