Only young and healthy people seem to matter nowadays in western societies. We don’t grant our seniors the special status and privileges they have in other parts of the world. This results in growing discrimination against elderly people.
In some societies, elderly people are being honoured for their wisdom. In our societies, the image of senior citizens only deteriorates. They are too slow and need walkers and mobility scooters to move about. They are suffering many diseases and generate huge costs for society.
The fact that governments and media only talk about the problems and costs of the sharp increase in the ageing population isn’t contributing to a more positive image of senior citizens either. Consequently, the general public has come to judge the elderly as problematic.
In times gone by, grandparents were old people in the true sense of the word. They sat on their chairs, gave their grandchildren a little pat on the head and a candy and that was it. They died in their sixties or seventies. When they were very tough they possibly reached their eighties.
Modern-day grandparents often are quite different. They don’t look like the stereotyped old people in rocking chairs anymore. They dress nicely, feel young-at-heart, take their grandchildren to the amusement park, know what is going on in the world, and can be contacted via their mobile phones and their Facebook pages. And they can easily reach their eighties and nineties. Many of them even go past one hundred.
According to a recently published report of the World Health Organisation, between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years will nearly double from 12% to 22%. By 2020, the number of people aged 60 years and older will outnumber children younger than 5 years.
I have always had a weak spot for older adults. It is so much easier to be young. You still have your whole future ahead and have a world of possibilities open to you to make choices and set out on your way.
Reaching the end of life, for many elderly it is hard to stay optimistic. The world in general seems to be far worse off than it was in their ‘good old days’. Young people are far too occupied to care about their older fellow human beings. And for the old adults themselves only death lies ahead, probably preceded by disease and surely by a decline in capabilities.
Many of the elderly people seem sad and depressed, not satisfied with life as it is now for them and reminiscing about what used to be or about chances they had missed and things they would have liked to do differently.
“I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”
Oliver Sacks, neuroscientist
But this surely isn’t the only way it can be. I don’t want to resign to the fact that it is the destiny of elderly people to have their lives just fizzle out. Why can’t this last phase of life be exciting and rewarding, making use of all the wisdom one has gathered and not having to worry anymore about careers and social status?
In many cases, health problems put a spoke in the wheel. Pensioners have the time to do all kinds of interesting things, but aches and pains, illnesses, and a lack of energy frequently keep them from doing so.
But then again, you see other older adults enjoying good health and a great range of physical, social, and mental abilities. What is making the difference and how do these people succeed in ageing well? Not everyone getting old will become infirm. And certainly not every older person will suffer dementia. Lifestyle, social, and psychological factors are a big influence on the health situation of older adults.
Medical advances have added many years to human life. In general, though, these added years unfortunately are not experienced in better health, according to the World Health Organisation. It is important to not only lengthen life, but also maintain and enhance its quality. Older people should be enabled to continue participating in society.
The stereotype of older people as frail and dependent has to be rejected. The many contributions that older people make are often overlooked, while the demands that population ageing will place on society are frequently overemphasised or exaggerated. Research has shown, the contributions elderly people make far outweigh any investments that might be needed to provide health services, long-term care, and social security.
Ageism – discrimination against a person on the basis of their age – may now be more pervasive than sexism or racism, as the World Health Organisation claims. Worldwide, a policy shift towards ageing is necessary from emphasis on controlling costs to enabling older people to do the things that matter to them.
We should be ashamed an international institution has to tell us to appreciate and respect our elderly fellow human beings more. Precisely these older adults built the society that we, younger people, are enjoying nowadays. Senior activists and political parties certainly have their work cut out for them to turn this negative public perception around. But every one of us can start today, in our environment.
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