Lifestyle

WHERE HAVE ALL THE MEN GONE?

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Dr Pola (far left) and friends are the few exceptions to the rule of female-dominated senior groups. — DR POLA SINGH

Recently The Star carried an article titled Where are the women?, about the poor representation of women in the cabinet and how their presence is essential for better responsiveness to citizens’ needs.

After all, women make up almost half of our population.

The title got me thinking along a similar vein: “Where are the men?”

This was in reference to the lack of male participation in social activities for older adults. In practically every group activity organised by senior citizens associations or communities, the turnout is 90%-100% women. It seems the women are unable to persuade their husbands to join them for the various activities. Why the reluctance?

Men, with their muscles and bigger body size, are the stronger sex physically. But when it comes to health, they are the weaker sex compared to women. The statistics confirm this. Worldwide, women outlive men by at least five years. In Russia, it is more than 10 years! That is a lot of extra years of living.

In Malaysia, the life expectancy of women is 77.36 years and for men it is 72.66 years. That is a difference of nearly five years. A lot can be achieved during those extra years which can be spent with the family. Five extra years to enjoy being alive. No one wants to go off before their time. This is the longevity bonus made possible by medicine, science and technology. However, women seem to be the main beneficiary, not men.

One reason to explain this disparity in life expectancy is biological. Women have two X chromosomes and men have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. The estrogen in women gives them better protection against diseases and may explain why they have a stronger immune system than men.

While we can’t change our genes, we can definitely change our lifestyle habits to live longer and in relatively good health. Women are born into their traditional role as caregivers, starting with caring for their family as mothers, daughters and wives. They look after their children, take care of their elderly parents and keep an eye on their husband’s health. This hands-on carer experience explains why women are more concerned about their health than men.

They go for health checks and practise healthy habits. Also, they have gone through child-bearing and childbirth, and are better at dealing with pain. In addition, women generally have fewer unhealthy habits than men. They don’t smoke or drink excessively, and they don’t take unnecessary risks.

The two genders have different approaches to retirement. Women welcome this period as an opportunity to be free to go out, enjoy social activities and focus on improving their health. What do retired men do? Well, mostly they hang out with their buddies to drink, talk about politics, play golf or watch football on TV. Or they remain at home doing nothing much, get bored and put on weight.Why the difference?

Having observed this difference between men and women in the senior communities I have been a part of for the past 20 years, I have to conclude it is true that men in general do not care about their health to the same extent as women. Just talk to their wives. They will tell you almost in exasperation, maybe even desperation, about their futile attempts to get their husbands to go for health checks.

Given that men are more prone to stress, anger and violence, they are at higher risk of stroke and heart disease. Men need to learn self-control and anger management or suffer the consequences.

They are reluctant to see the doctor or the dentist for regular checkups. They are less able to handle health issues than women. Referred to as having the “ostrich mentality”, men tend to be in denial mode when health issues crop up. Even when they experience early signs of problems with their urination, they hesitate to go for a checkup. The end result – prostate cancer that could have been avoided had they sought an early diagnosis.

Men want to preserve that masculine image even as they age.

This is evident in their preference for meat at every meal, especially red meat, than for healthier food choices like vegetables and whole grains. This need to uphold their masculinity is extended to their indifference to joining activities such as dancing, singing and painting.

No wonder courses for seniors offered by University of the Third Age (U3A), Malaysia, see more women signing up than men, year after year.

Men find women’s social activities too “soft”. No oomph, so I was told. To attract them to join the short courses at U3A, and make new friends, more “men’s courses” were offered, for example, Entrepreneurship, Digital Technologies and DIY, the latter conducted by the Kaki DIY founder himself. Still, the participants for the courses remain predominantly female.

Indeed, it has become a challenge to recruit men for social activities and voluntary community service.

Social networks

According to an article published by Harvard Medical School – “Mars vs Venus: The gender gap in health”, men lack social networks and support. Women find it easy to strike up conversations and make friends. Men, on the other hand, tend to shy away from social interaction. They feel a sense of awkwardness and discomfort in the company of strangers. They need to be aware that prolonged social isolation can lead to anxiety, depression and other mental issues.

Nursing homes bear testimony to women living longer than men. The residents at these homes and in many senior living facilities are overwhelmingly women. Some have never married, but the majority are widows who have outlived their husbands, sometimes by as many as 10 to 20 years! On a recent trip to Singapore, I met with the president of Wicare, a support group created by widows for widows and the fatherless. The group has been around since 1993 and currently has more than 700 widow members!

It is not that men are unaware of the health risks they are facing when they make poor lifestyle choices such as avoiding health checks and minimising their health issues. They are aware but are reluctant to do anything about it. Only they know the reason. I may be making generalisations and assumptions here, but the bottom line is this – unless our men take better care of their health, we may see a similar Wicare set up here for the widows they leave behind.

Men like Dr Pola Singh can lead the way. At age 74, he is a example of good health and vitality. He hikes and exercises daily, watches what he eats, has an extensive network of friends, does charity, keeps himself mentally active by writing, and has a positive outlook on life. Let’s hope we see more men doing the same. Never too late. Never too early. Just get started. We love our men – our husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and uncles. We want our men to be with us for as long as possible. Can we get their cooperation on this?

Lily Fu is a gerontologist who advocates for seniors. She is founder of Seniors-Aloud, an online platform for seniors to get connected and enjoy social activities for ageing well.

(The artile was first published in the Star under the column ‘Grey Matters’. It can be accessed at https://www.thestar.com.my/lifestyle/family/2024/01/17/where-have-all-the-men-gone )

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