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Reframing our age-concepts

We’ve known for some time that the Longevity Revolution means that our life course is increasing and that our younger generations could live to almost 100 years or more. If we mentally reframe ageing as a life course matter and more of a ‘go-to-woe’ process than a category like ‘retirement-age & beyond’ we can then […]

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We’ve known for some time that the Longevity Revolution means that our life course is increasing and that our younger generations could live to almost 100 years or more. If we mentally reframe ageing as a life course matter and more of a ‘go-to-woe’ process than a category like ‘retirement-age & beyond’ we can then have a renewed and more expanded outlook on what the following 40+ years might hold for us. Along with reframing our understanding of ageing as a life course matter, we need to restructure societies institutions to accommodate a new distribution of ages and abilities because our schools, universities, workplaces, health care settings have not kept pace with our biological longevity.  

If we do understand age as less of a category and more of a process, then we would probably take the Spanish proverb “If you want to age well you had better start when you are young” a little more seriously! We would also come to terms with the idea that we will be ‘old’ for a very large proportion of our lives, and while we can and should celebrate youth, we might see that celebrating ‘age’ and ‘ageing’ is not a bad thing! Maturity is not about ‘acting your age’ or ‘being responsible’ so much as it is about recognising the large and small gains, we accrue across our life course. It is often in the appreciation of the smaller gains that we ripen our sense of gratitude for the life we have had, and from this flows a desire to impart our knowledge and experience to younger counterparts.

Mentally reframing of our ageing-journey and shifting paradigms when it comes to our ‘age-awareness’ is a good place to start and ensures we can be more ‘adaptive’ as we age. The Australian Association of Gerontology recently circulated a discussion paper asking AAG members whether they supported the term ‘adaptive ageing’ as an appropriate term for the twenty-first century. Adaptive ageing seems appropriate in modern times. Adapting to our life’s events, trajectories and course of health may indeed require adjustments on the part of the individual. However, as Rowe & Khan (Successful Aging 2.0: Conceptual Expansions for the 21st Century) assert, society must also play its part so that individuals can flourish in an adapted health, work, residential and recreational infrastructure to adjust to the growing number of our population who will live active lives well into their 80s and beyond. But this is still not enough. Infrastructures and embodying more positive attitudes to ageing are all important for adaptive ageing in contemporary times.

It is also time to examine our ageist attitudes that act as barriers to individuals who want to continue working, learning and socially engaging in life beyond 50! Western Individualistic culture have been slow to embrace intergenerational engagement, yet examples of this being a very positive experience have been showing up in various narratives such as that of Chip Conley’s Wisdom at Work: the making of a Modern Elder show that intergenerational teams can actually perform better where the “purpose-driven” millennials are guided by the experience and perseverance of older employees.

Take the collectivistic culture of Japan for instance – they have the largest proportion of proportion of centenarians . Uruguay, Hong Kong and Puerto Rico are also home to some of the world’s oldest people! What some of these countries also have in common are that they are collectivist in their culture. That is, there is a far greater degree of intergenerational living and caring that goes on in day-to-day life. In some of my research on ageing from different cultural perspectives between Australia and the Philippines, older Filipinos use the word ‘we’ so often when discussing age-related aspects of their life like the topic of transitioning through life stages that in a data analysis using Nvivo software, the word ‘we’ was in the top 10 most used words. For older Australian’s the words ‘people’ and ‘I’ were in their top 10 most used words when discussing transitioning from mid-life into old age. Interestingly, the word ‘care’ in the context of ageing was used slightly differently between Australians and Filipinos too. Both older and younger Filipinos used the term ‘care’ interchangeably in the same sentence that referred to the ‘affective care’ and the caring for their older relatives. Australians used the term ‘care’ to describe the ‘care provided for’ their older relatives as in health care services.

“…….the word ‘we’ was in the top 10 most used words”

Caring about our own life journey turns out is not all that is required for a long healthy and productive life! Studies show that the things that make us more fulfilled is when we care for and about others. Doing things for others, having a purpose, and ideally combining both these things is what keeps us in a state of gratitude, sharing and in a healthy loop of reciprocity. What can the West borrow from collectivist cultures that might see us live longer in more functionally healthy way where an individual adapts to, and navigates societal structures in their later years? I would suggest a greater degree of intergenerational collaboration.

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