Can we turn old age into something beautiful? We can even overcome our fear of dementia, says Rudi Westendorp ahead of dementia awareness week in the UK.
If you want to get a rise out of Rudi Westendorp, simply mention the “ageing revolution.” It’s a description he detests as there is no such thing, he insists. Instead, what we are experiencing as our average life expectancy drastically increases is a “longevity revolution”. And societies’ attitudes towards that transformation need to change, as promoted by events such as the upcoming Dementia Awareness Week in the UK.
The word ageing, according to the professor of medicine in the Center for Healthy Aging at Copenhagen University, is full of negative connotations. “The biological definition of ageing is that it becomes worse as time goes by. Today, however, we shouldn’t talk about old age before 85. Talk about exploiting life instead,” he proclaims emphatically in an interview with PROJECT M.
JUST GO WITH IT
Avoiding the subjective feeling of being old is easy, insists the author of Growing Older Without Feeling Old (2015). It is simply a matter of continually adapting to new challenges, such as physical and cognitive decline. To do this, we need to call on our resilience, motivation and energy to compensate for deteriorating bodies and minds. The ageing process is a biological fact that we can adjust to.
“When I speak to older people and ask them if they are old, they want to slap me in the face. If you feel old, then you are old. If you feel young, then you are young,” Westendorp (57) declares.
Thanks to medical and technological advances, the average life expectancy in the developed world has doubled, from 40 to 80 years, within a century. If these advances allow us to stay ahead of lasting damage – for example, by repairing or replacing cells, tissues and organs – the first person to live to the age of 135 is being born about now, speculates Westendorp. This may not even be the maximum and gigantic increases of life expectancy are envisioned by researchers such as Aubrey de Grey and promoted by the Methuselah Foundation.
Westendorp even sees no need to fear dementia: the risk of having dementia is already 30% less than 20 years ago because the quality of peoples’ brains is better as improved education and vascular health nurtures brains in early life.
The good news is that old people have never lived that long in that good health before. “If you dream of living a good life, then now is a good time for it,” Westendorp declares.
The downside is that old people are being held responsible for the huge financial burden that their retirement imposes on society. While the principal responsibility of those of working age used to be raising the young, in future it will be supporting the old. And many younger people are unwilling to bear that burden.
The solution Westendorp recommends is to help older people to contribute more to society for longer. The reverse responsibility is that we should abolish ageism: Older people should no longer be awarded a different status simply because of their chronological age.
In his outspoken manner, Westendorp compares ageism to a zoo where the elderly are the animals being paid for and taken care of by the young. Yet this is becoming costly. “It takes prudent action from all stakeholders to get it dismantled and to arrive at a new social order.
The only way to make long lives affordable is to abolish the fixed retirement age, says Westendorp. “I am against younger generations being held responsible for older people. Everybody should primarily be responsible for their own lives.”
For this to work, however, societies need to reconsider concepts of gainful human employment. Older people ought to have the right to work if they want to or financially need to. At the same time, people should be allowed to stop working when they choose, irrespective of age – provided that they have sufficient funds to finance retirement.
In such a scenario, societies need to set up a collective agreement to ensure that those unable to contribute because of illness, for example, would be taken care of, Westendorp says.
It will likely take another 50 years before we have fully abolished ageism, Westendorp predicts. Yet in his view, it is part of our moral duty to guarantee frail and dependent old people full access to society. Extended old age should be a cause for celebration.
Source: Project M