Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Living
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Forever young

Older people are refusing to act their age, discovers Omneya Yousry

Click to view caption
Members of the Eternal Youth Association modelling dresses at their annual general meeting

Against the background of some youthful pop music, a group of 60 or 70-year-old models shows off elegant fashion designs in a show inspired by the nomadic environment and designed by fashion designer Ensaf Al-Batal, who despite the models' years has given them all the spirit of youth.

Another group of models emerges to show off evening wear, the models sometimes leaning against one another for fear of falling or tripping in front of the public who have lined up to watch the show. "My designs are inspired by Egypt's oases, and I used veteran seamstresses to help me make the designs. The show isn't about sales or profit -- it's about giving people pleasure," Al-Batal said.

Backstage, things look like a beehive, with people running around dressing and redressing the models, while some of the latter ask their daughters to help them get dressed and others ask for the help of their granddaughters to put on their veils or help them do their hair. Despite the grey hair and wrinkles of the models, the joy and activity are obvious.

Meanwhile, various light-hearted competitions and games such as carrying a ball on a spoon without letting it fall to the ground have brought together a number of the older women attending. A belly dancing competition then begins, testing the limits of fitness. The whole thing has been put on by the Eternal Youth Association at its annual general meeting.

Creating new activities for the elderly is the motto of the association, which now has more than 4,000 older members, mostly women aged between 45 and 90. "Older people in Egypt have traditionally had only three options: either turn into baby-sitters for grandchildren, or sit at home doing little, or live off the remnants of the past," says Sherif Khalaf, the president of the association, which was founded in 1995.

"Older people tend to tell the same stories to each other and to younger people, trying to remember how important they once were. Our goal is to change all that and to replace nostalgia with new activities. God gave us life, so we must exploit it to the maximum," Khalaf said.

"Seventeen years ago, I was one of a group of 50 older men, members of the same club in Heliopolis, who thought of setting up a group for older people who may have been feeling lonely or bored and wanted to use the rest of their lives productively," recalled Khalaf. He remembers that the group organised a trip to Marsa Matrouh, and once they had started collecting funds for the new association they quickly raised LE15 from each new member. "Then we got the official licenses we needed to set up the new association," he said.

Eternal Youth today organises trips for older people to help them enjoy themselves and to allow them to get to know their country better. "I visited many foreign countries during my working years, but the association also provided me with an opportunity to visit Siwa, the Bahariya Oasis and many other places in Egypt," said Gehan Saleh, the former coordinator of various international agencies.

A quarterly trip abroad is also organised at reasonable prices in order to encourage members to go out and explore the world, while having fun at the same time. "We have visited the States, France, Italy, Spain, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Romania, and Cyprus," added Saleh.

Sawsan Al-Mestikawi, one of the association's members, now fills her diary with various outings and leisure activities she organises for the association. "We went to a concert by musician Adel Imam at less than a third of the regular price," she said. The association also has an agreement with various clubs that they will give Eternal Youth members cards to enter during the daytime at reduced prices.

The association also offers health insurance to its members and discounts at various medical institutions, ranging between ten to 70 per cent. It issues a medical guide each year with updates on hospitals, clinics, medical labs and pharmacies that give discounts. For those members having a medical condition that needs special care, or that do not have near relatives, the association provides them with special rates at various old people's homes.

"At our meetings, we exchange experiences in life and help each other to solve various problems," said Khalaf. Some members become so close that they help to nurse each other in case of sickness, he added.

Sporting activities are not neglected by the association. It has its own teams for many sports, such as swimming, football and tennis. It even has an international table-tennis team for people up to 80 years old that enters local and international competitions and wins medals every year. As part of a fitness programme for members, the association draws on the services of a professional trainer to put members through their paces on a weekly basis.

The association also puts out an annual magazine with the same name, Eternal Youth, this being distributed for free and edited by members. The magazine includes a variety of articles on leisure interests, cultural matters, life experience, poetry, travel, short stories and other topics, though it tends to avoid political or religious matters. Association members come from various political and religious backgrounds.

The magazine also contains personal "success stories" by its members in each issue. "Most of the time, the story is about women, because 80 per cent of the members are women," says Khalaf. "It is for this reason that the association's annual meeting is on Mother's Day."

Joining the association is easy and does not require many documents. Prospective members need only fill in an application form, provide two personal photos, and a scanned copy of an ID and educational certificates. Anyone aged over 45 for women and 50 for men can join the association.

The association has also become international, with expatriate Egyptians in Canada, Australia and the United States now queuing up to join. It also plans to set up its own private retirement home for members.

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