Ageing is not what it used to be. Singaporeans are not just living longer but staying healthy for more of those years. Thanks to factors such as better nutrition and healthcare, the healthy life expectancy for Singapore men is now 73 years. For women, it is just under 78 years. That is the average number of years a person can expect to live in full health, before ill health sets in owing to disease and/or injury. Society needs to keep up with this new reality and find ways to harness the expertise and experience of those seniors who remain active and independent well into their 70s. Indeed, as Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said, the whole conversation on ageing needs to change so as to turn people's longer lives into an advantage. The economic component of that fact is the need for society in general, and employers in particular, to treat the elderly as assets and not liabilities. So long as people are healthy, they should be considered productive citizens, not has-beens. As things stand, both mindsets and re-employment laws seem to be lagging behind.
There is much to learn from the West, where many people start new careers in their 60s instead of retiring into complaining cocoons or considering themselves past their prime. Singaporeans must see themselves in a new light.
The assumption that ageing is nothing but a slow descent into infirmity needs to be re-examined. Reports of stiffening joints, weakening muscles and fading eyesight may be off-putting to the young, but more recent research suggests that greying is not all bad. There is a growing body of evidence from social science research of a U-curve in happiness, which is high for people in their 20s, then declines for the next few decades before rising again for those who live into their 60s and beyond.
The emotional maturity and self-acceptance that come with age are other positive factors. When it comes to living well, seniors may be able to teach the young a thing or two. The well-being that comes with age transcends the physical.
This is consistent with the World Health Organisation's understanding of health as more than the absence of infirmity or disease. Rather, it is "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being".
In the light of these attitudes, Singaporeans of all ages stand to benefit from a paradigm shift in mindsets towards ageing. What Singapore needs to kick-start is a virtuous circle in which individuals remain engaged, employed and energised for as long as they are able, regardless of age.
While in middle age and caught in the rat race, many may dream of retirement as a golden era of leisure. However, what keeps people going and gives fulfilment is a sense that they can continue to contribute and be useful to others. Society at large should recognise that potential.