Flowers symbolize youth because they are short lived. In that sense, "old flowers" may be an oxymoron.

But I think this expression is perfectly acceptable for hydrangeas in midsummer--although the flowers are actually sepals that don't fall off.

After changing colors repeatedly, hydrangeas have now acquired a subdued elegance.

Their appearance reminded me of the words of Kazuo Hasegawa, a retired psychiatrist and pioneer in dementia research, whose book I recently read.

Explaining that having dementia does not change the patient as a person, Hasegawa states, "Who you are today is a continuation of who you were until yesterday."

Having been diagnosed with the condition himself, he is the co-author of "Boku wa Yatto Ninchisho no Koto ga Wakatta" (I finally understand dementia).

His basic message is that because people remain who they are throughout their lives, it is a mistake to treat dementia patients as if they have "gone to the other side."

He also noted their conditions vary from day to day--a fact he understood intimately through his own experience.

For instance, becoming fatigued in the evening worsened his confusion, but he would wake up clearheaded the next morning after a good night's sleep.

The fact that dementia patients have both good times and bad times as many people do is proof of the "seamless continuity of life."

The average life expectancy of Japanese women last year reached 87.45 years and 81.41 for men, both all-time highs.

But amid this inexorable aging of society, it is not easy to comprehend exactly what old age is really about. And only through better understanding will we find the "right words" of empathy with which to comfort and support the elderly.

In a novel by Yukiko Kogure about an elderly couple, titled "Taigaa Rihatsuten Shinju" (Double suicide at Tiger Barbershop), the protagonist verbalizes her inner thoughts.

One passage goes like this: "Torao's forgetfulness is to be likened to those clouds in the sky--hazy, drifting apart and then coming together, thinning at times and then growing dense."

I gazed up at the summer sky, where the clouds were changing shape every second.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 3

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.