Live Long, Live Well: Some Thoughts on Luigi Conaro and a Japanese Think Tank

Getting older is about to get a lot tougher, if a recent article in The Irish Times is to be believed. According to bureaucrats, politicians and social scientists in Japan, the latest phenomenon to become worried about is the problem of how to handle the increasing growth of what is called the “silver influx”—that is, the increasing rise in population of the elderly in that country. Among other things, a think-tank in the Land of the Rising Sun is actively contemplating and exploring the possibility of “mass elderly migration” as a means of dealing with a demographic that is “trending up,” and one which shows no signs of abating.  The increase in the elderly population is a puzzle to those bureaucrats, politicians and social scientists; they are all in a tizzy over what to do with their “elders.” Trying to “piece” together a solution concerning the puzzle of the elderly is a project that is being closely watched by those who work in or whose field of expertise lies in gerontology and other associated areas. Whether specialist or layperson, reading about this makes for bracing reading and what a matter of this significance calls for—and requires—is an attitude of serious reflection and contemplation.

David McNeill (the Tokyo correspondent for The Irish Times), in his June 29, 2015 article called “Japan Considers Moving Elderly from Tokyo to Relieve Crowding,” succinctly states the facts. The think tank, called the Japan Policy Council, is one that has links to businesses and government bureaucrats; the council, seeing the rise in the elderly population, thinks that it would be a good idea if somehow the elderly in Japan’s big cities (such as Tokyo) could be convinced to relocate (“migrate”) to outlying areas in order to help relieve congestion not just in living situations but also in the costs of care and social services that an elderly population often requires. Such a move—they believe—would not only help large urban areas like Tokyo, but it would (as the council and some governmental officials hope) create something of an “economic boon” to those outlying areas that have experienced economic downturns. (A Gerontological Theme Park with all the “amenities” perhaps?)


Such policy proscriptions are seriously being considered; some 41 “regional areas” are receptive to such proposals. At the same time, the Japanese Government is trying to handle another demographic problem: that of population decline. According to projections, by the year 2060, Japan’s population will drop from 127 million to about 87 million—and of that, 40% will be age 65 or older. An advisory body to the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has put forth a proposal to allow 200,000 “foreigners” into the country in an effort to stabilize the population at 100 million—a proposal that may not go down very well in some quarters. Two “problems” of the same coin: it is no wonder, that, as Mr. McNeill writes: “Diffusing Japan’s demographic time-bomb has become something of a political obsession.”

A “political obsession” it is—“caring” for a population that is getting older. Growing older is an “obsession” all right; but it’s just not a political one, or one that mesmerizes only Japanese officials. There is more to it than that. It is something that eventually affects everyone, because everyone will undergo it. And it is not one of those subjects that you can talk about quite easily, like the weather, the latest movie or what baseball team has what it takes to make it to the World Series. If worst comes to worst, you can always get roiled up about politics and politicians—that one subject alone is sure enough to raise the numbers on the blood pressure cuff for most people. But when it comes to getting older—or actually being old—it is, well, a subject that most people—including the elderly themselves—would rather avoid talking about. (Never mind young people: those who are in their golden youth never think that they’ll ever get old—besides, they are the ones who perennially never trust anyone over the age of 40, parents included.)

No wonder: it is hard to be “old” when you live in a society that glorifies youth and the young. Everywhere you turn, you see “youth”: in actual people, in advertising, in clothing, in music, in literature, sports, and in entertainment. Even the “seniors” among us must find it tiring to talk (or contemplate) the accoutrements (for some, but not all) of their seniority: false teeth, walking sticks, prune juice (and other delectably-flavored beverages), medicines and doctors, insurance bills and more insurance bills and maybe for the daring amongst them, the occasional "nip and tuck." And then there are the various ways to make oatmeal palatable and/or whether you can “depend” upon certain garments to maintain your sartorial dignity.  And of course, the greatest fear and worry of all: the possibility of physical and/or mental diminishment. Yes, it is far easier to converse in the things of youth, whether those of the present or of your own distant one.

There is nothing wrong with a “youth-obsessed society”—not at all. It can make for a vibrant and exciting way to live—and who doesn’t want that? (And many "seniors" actually prefer the comany of the younger set.) But when you really think about it, there is something wrong when it comes to our “youth obsessed” world—and that is the conscious and unconscious denigration of the mere fact of being old and getting old. Benjamin Franklin famously said that you can always depend on two things: death and taxes. The venerable Doctor Franklin should have included aging as well; and well he should have, having been a noted “member of the club” as he was, and a well-respected one, too. All of these proposals from the Japanese think-tank revealed an unspoken truth:  Old age—and the wisdom that is the outgrowth of that—is not as valued as it used to be, or should be.  And this in a society—and a world—that once venerated its elders. And that is a great shame.

Many people tend to think that being young or getting old are obsessions of the modern world. This is not so. There was a time—long ago—when it was an obsession of an Italian nobleman and architect from Padua named Luigi Conaro, who lived from 1467 to 1566 (his birth date is disputed; others have it as 1484, but he did die in 1566). He was also a patron of the arts and thanks to his entrepreneurial skills, he made a fortune from his work in hydraulics. But that is not what he is remembered for.

He is remembered for being an advocate on how to live well and how to live long: at the age of 35 he set out to rethink his ways of living, because of the thought—and the fear—that he was dying. Because of that fear, he vowed to change his ways; after visit to the doctor, he changed his mode of thinking and his way of living, which resulted in his treatise: The Sure and Certain Method of Attaining a Long and Healthful Life. (It is also known as Discourses on the Sober and Temperate Life.)  You could say that it was a Venetian’s “how-to” book on how to reach a “venerable old age.” He changed not only his diet, but his attitude. And apparently, in that respect, he was successful: he first began writing when he was 83, then continued on when he reached 86, then when he was 91 and finally, when he reached 95 years of age. According to some reports he died at either the age of 98 or 102. Whatever age it was when he died, Conaro achieved his goal: he lived long and he lived well.

Luigi Conaro not only left an impression upon history, but upon a future pope as well. Cardinal Albino Luciani (who would become the much-loved “September Pope” of 1978, Pope John Paul I), was the Patriarch of Venice when he wrote a book, a series of whimsical letters (Illustrissimi) to famous people, fictional as well as real ones. He wrote a letter to Luigi Conaro, and it was entitled, “We’re Old; Are We Falling Apart?” and it was an instructive and chatty letter about what it means about being—and getting—old.  It’s doubtful that the members of the Japan Policy Council have ever read it or even know about the book’s existence.  It wouldn’t be a bad idea if they picked it up and read that letter. And if they did, maybe they’d reconsider things and see aging in a better—and more positive—light. And maybe, they’d refrain from doing what Pope Francis said society tends to do to the elderly in our midst: “putting mothballs in their pockets and shoving them into the closet,” ignoring their wisdom and their gifts.

Perhaps Cardinal Luciani said it best: “…it is not a bad idea for the young to know that, besides their own problems, there are delicate problems suffered by others, with whom they live side by side…” Young or old, we all have our “problems” and we are all in this life together. It is a life that should be cherished, whether we’re young or old.  And we can be of help to one another: the old, who were once young, can offer wise advice and encouragement; while the young, who will one day become old, can, by their attentions and affection, help make older hearts become vibrant again. After all, we are all getting old, but it doesn’t mean that we have to “fall apart.” We all ought to aspire to be like Luigi Conaro, who lived long and lived well. We mightn't live as long as he did, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't live well—and that is a lesson that should be learned by everyone, including bureaucrats, politicians and gerontologists too.  And you don't need a "think-tank" to do that.


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