Tracking age – when are you actually old?

The question of age is as banal as it is tricky – and needs to be asked anew today.

Author: Cornelia Kazis

When did you feel old for the first time? When you discover the first gray hairs? Or, in the case of an unexpected success, through many years of experience? When you buy your first pair of reading glasses or when the kids move out of the house? On the "Happy Birthday" that wasn’t so happy?

As old as you feel?

Perhaps you think your own feeling helps with the question: Many defiantly claim that you are as old as you feel. That sounds comforting right off the bat. The trouble is, everyone only says this when they already look pretty old.

With the "centenarian who climbed out of the window" the question is superfluous. Clearly: the novel character is an old man who recklessly risks a fracture of the neck of the femur or even worse. Anyone who has a three-digit age number probably lives outside our title question. Out with the anti-aging battle zone!

"Am I already a bit old now?"

But what about 84-year-old Giorgio Armani, who launched a design hotel in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai?? Is old who does this? "Am I a little old now?", my grandson asked as he blew out the five little candles on his birthday cake.

Experts take a more sober approach to the age question. Among other things, they refer to 40-year-olds as the "old boys" and 50-year-olds as the "young olds".

Different views

Different disciplines such as biology, sociology, and psychology approach the question very differently. For sociologists, old age begins where work ends: with retirement age.

Appropriate to the topic

Tracking age

Staying young into old age: That’s what research says

In gerontology, the study of aging, people talk about four phases of aging:

  • First, the phase of late professional activity and the transition to the post-professional stage of life
  • Second: the phase of autonomous, active retirement age
  • Third, the phase of increased fragility
  • Fourth, the phase of needing care

Developmental psychologists are observing an interesting shift: The longer we live, the longer we don’t feel old yet.

It is also certain that almost all people want to live as long as possible. But hardly anyone really wants to be old. That’s not surprising: old age doesn’t have a good image in our culture.

Affluent old people as a separate category

Unless the old are well-to-do. Just like the "Sayahs. The snappy term is an acronym: "Silver Agers, Young at Heart". This is how marketing strategists describe affluent old people who enjoy consumption.

In keeping with the theme

Between burden and love: the new grandparents

"Young at heart" – there it is again: the difference between biographical and perceived age.

"Young at heart" can also be a medical finding. A 60-year-old can have a blood pump of a 40-year-old – and vice versa. So the title question is pretty tricky.

New challenges

Certainly, our increased life expectancy presents us with new challenges: Is retirement planning still as feasible as ever? How must the retirement age be adjusted? How must health care change if more and more people can live for a long time with chronic diseases??

But are these problems reason enough to simply talk old age down on the one hand? Or, on the other hand, to transfigure in denial? Anti-aging à tout prix?

Four gerontological truths

To get a realistic picture of old age, it is useful to take note of four gerontological truths:

  • The first truth: Our life expectancy is higher than ever before. Statistically, we here can assume that we will live significantly longer after retirement than our childhood and youth years put together.
  • The second truth: The first truth calls for self-determination in shaping everyday life in old age. Anyone who waits until the first aches and pains make themselves felt and can no longer walk without a walker is missing an opportunity. Gerontology experts and psychologists therefore advise in unison: Become your own life entrepreneur!
  • The third truth: People are never so different as when they are old. There are 80-year-olds who participate in the New York marathon. Others of the same age, affected by dementia, live in nursing homes in their own world. It can be said that ten 3-year-olds or even ten 20-year-olds are clearly more similar than ten 80-year-olds. The prevailing images of old age do not do justice to this diversity.
  • The fourth truth: As life expectancy increases, so does the time for different generations to live together. Never before has there been such a long period of grandparenting. And never before have there been so many great-grandchildren. Francois Hopflinger, the well-known Swiss sociologist of aging, speaks figuratively of "beanstalk families". Our society is increasingly developing into a three-generation or even a four-generation society over a long period of time. This historic first is spectacular.

The long road

So it can be quite exciting to grow quite old. Maybe Ashley Montagu will help pave the way. The British-American anthropologist and developmental psychologist left behind the following sentence: "Man’s goal could be to die as young as possible and as late as possible."

Cornelia Kazis (65) has been a journalist and author for 30 years and worked for Radio SRF 1 and SRF 2 Kultur for several decades. Her main topics are people and society, education, pedagogy, upbringing and family.

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