Old people as destructive as a tsunami

From ‘Not kind to say ‘silver tsunami”, 9 Feb 2013, Voices, Today

(William Wan:) I appreciate Dr Noel Chia’s advocacy for people with special needs (“Look into special needs for 2030, too”; Feb 6). I find it unfortunate, though, that he used the metaphor “silver tsunami” to describe the ageing population. It is ironic because he is clearly concerned for seniors and their special needs, too.

The Japanese word for tidal wave — tsunami — is now part of the English language and is used in different contexts, including to describe the growing population of seniors around the world. I submit, however, that the use of that word in such a context is inappropriate.

Language defines perceptions, and it is not kind to use such language to construct public perceptions of an ageing population. It implies that the growing number of seniors in our society is as destructive as a tsunami. It creates a vision of impending disaster. It contributes to the perception that the elderly population is bad news. I am certain that Dr Chia does not see the ageing population in such negative light.

But such language does frame the greying population in these terms. Besides being a language of ageism, it does no justice to the significant contributions our seniors have made and are still making to the positive business of nation building.

The metaphor ‘silver tsunami’ was first defined by Mary Finn Naples in 2002, and no one seemed to sound alarm bells about how discriminatory it was until a spate of horrific tragedies in 2004 (Indian Ocean) and 2011 (Japan) raised questions about the appropriateness of it in light of these disasters. The term itself is a mixed bag of connotations, ‘silver’ being a nice way of describing one’s physical deterioration and ‘tsunami’ a decimating Act of God. Khaw Boon Wan as Health Minister latched onto it in 2009, acknowledging the American Geriatric Society for the phrase, and it has been used by politicians and population experts ever since to impress, shock or just show us that they know some oceanic geography.

William Wan apparently sees nothing wrong with using ‘greying population’ though. Silver, after all, is a shinier version of ‘grey’. We have a ‘silver generation’ contributing to our economy by spending their ‘silver dollars’ on the  ‘silver market’. There’s even a ‘Silver Housing Bonus’ dished out to elderly wishing to sell their houses. I’m old enough to know of a Nirvana rip-off rock band named ‘Silverchair’, though they have long disappeared (I wonder why). Ironically, a silver ‘spender’ sounds more self-reliant than one in the ‘golden’ years. ‘Golden’ has become old-fashioned since, and like the phrase ‘golden oldies’ brings to mind run-down cinemas or mustachioed crooners with muttonchop sideburns on anniversary Talentime shows covering Cliff Richard songs. I suppose I would fall into the ‘silver population’ in a few decades’ time, until another ‘shade of grey’ becomes fashionable. Or platinum perhaps?

But what else could one use to describe an incoming ‘wave’ of old people without making it sound like the End of Days, or a Gramp-pocalypse? We can’t possibly call it the ‘silver ripple’ or the ‘silver breeze’ can we? Even the term ‘baby-boomers’ suggests a steadily expanding balloon about to pop. Difficulties with settling on a term to describe a looming pattern aside, the risk of committing ‘ageism’ has made us more careful when using words like ‘old folks’, ‘elderly’, ‘aged’ and ‘senior citizens’. Whatever one calls them, old people have not just kept the fast food industry alive, but inspired pop culture with their stories and provided endless caricatures to entertain ourselves with, whether it’s Liang Po Po movies or Grumpy Old Men.

Instead of sucking our old people dry of whatever they’re worth and see them as consumers first, citizens and grandparents second, perhaps we should all take a step back and reflect on our mortality, that not all of us will go ‘silver’ gracefully, that we should cultivate a culture of filial piety, tolerance and respect for elders because we all will become them someday. And who else to look after the kids when we’re struggling in a dual-income family to stay afloat? It’s likely that we’ll be inundated by a foreign-worker tsunami before a silver one anyway. I hope I’ve gone way beyond silver when that time comes.

It’s not all bad news, but an ageing, tarnishing society isn’t cause for celebration either, not if our nurses are too ‘low-skilled’ to handle the incoming load. I’d like to think of the coming of an ageing society as a brewing dark cloud, with streaks of SILVER linings instead.

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