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Special Feature Part Two: Travel as Viewed Through the Lens of a Gerontologist

This is part two of four in a special series on the sabbatical travels of Sarah Toevs, professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Health and director of the Center for the Study of Aging. 

By Sarah Toevs

Our travels around the globe put us in contact with many treasures, some older than others, but all instructive. A few of the really old treasures we saw (listed in order visited) were Machu Picchu in Peru (15th century), Angkor Wat in Cambodia (12th century), the Ellora and Ajunta caves in India (fifth and second centuries, respectively), and settlements in the Cappadocia region of Turkey (sixth century). While these sites were amazing, my perspective was often shaped more by encounters with older people we connected with along the way.

Here are a few observations of how life as an older adult appeared. I saw engagement. It was normal to see older adults managing the market stalls, working in the field, visiting on the roadside, watching the children and participating in religious events. I saw mobility and agility with older adults doing lots of walking, riding public transportation, climbing steps or hillsides (that often left us breathless), and easily bending from the waist to pick up an item or harvest a crop from the field. I observed intergenerational living arrangements with families sharing a home, a business enterprise or a spot on the family moped.

A more personal experience with an older adult was our connection with Mr. Roh in Malaysia. As good fortune would have it (because of a delayed train), we had the pleasure of spending several days with him. Mr. Roh had retired from the military, moved back to his home town of Taiping , and — at 82— was driving his carefully maintained vintage car as a taxi. Even though his driver’s license indicated he had impaired sight (macular degeneration), he was not deterred from taking us off the beaten path, albeit cautiously, to a mangrove preserve and fishing village. His perspective on aging was that if he didn’t stay active he would get bored and end up in trouble — drinking too much, eating too much and so on. His willingness to reach out and share his story and the history of the area with us made our visit to Taiping a highlight of our travels.

The level of activity and the perspective of Mr. Roh and other older adults should inspire Americans. Old age may mean retiring from a job, but this does not preclude staying engaged in work or other productive endeavors. Getting older may bring physical changes, but that does not give us license to be inactive. I return to the university and the Center for the Study of Aging with new enthusiasm for supporting older adults in their efforts to remain active and encouraging students to explore opportunities in gerontology.