Growing Older without Feeling Old

By Rudi Westendorp

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In the previous century, human existence underwent a radical change. There has been an explosion of life — never before have so many people in the developed world lived for so long. It is the most drastic of the changes wrought in our society by the Industrial Revolution. Within a period of about a hundred years, average life expectancy rose from 40 to 80 years, and the likelihood of reaching the age of 65 increased three-fold, from 30 to 90 per cent. Pensioners have also made great gains; rather than ten, they can now look forward to twenty years of leisure when they retire. Babies born today can expect to live even longer; there is little doubt that some will live to be 135 years old.

All these additional years have not come to us because of a change in our bodies — whether by genetic manipulation or any other means. No, our bodies are essentially the same as they always were. Our greatly increased longevity is the emphatic result of the enormous changes we have made to our environment. Unlike before, everyone in the West now has enough to eat, we have clean drinking water available straight from the tap, and many infectious diseases have been eradicated. In addition, the chance of being killed by (military) violence has been reduced to a minimum. So it is no wonder that we no longer die in childhood, and almost everyone reaches old age. Our ability to intervene ever more effectively to counteract the effects of illness or ageing means we are living even longer.

However, our emotional and social adaptation to this revolution lags very much behind. We are truly entrenched in outdated patterns. Who brings their children up in the realistic expectation that they will reach the age of 100? What parents simply shrug off the news that their son or daughter has failed to make the grade and will have to repeat a year at school? Rather than trying to prepare their children for life in the space of just twenty years, parents today should be teaching them that learning is a lifelong process, given that they’ll need to be able to cope with circumstances that are constantly changing. And what will they themselves do, once their children are grown up? The time when we lived and worked solely to provide for our children, before retiring from professional and public life, is definitively over. Now, parents of children who have flown the nest wrestle with the question of how to fill the rest of their long lives.

This is not unfamiliar to me, as a 55-year-old. Longevity is partly determined by genetics, and, with a maternal grandmother who lived to 99, I may well reach the age of 90, or even 100. Horror! What am I going to do for the next twenty years, with two grown-up daughters who get along in life excellently by themselves? Of course, I’m glad I didn’t die young, and I look forward to a carefree old age. At the same time, I can see the end of my life looming ominously ahead, and I wonder if I will weather the storm well or not.

A long life is an impressive achievement, but it is also a frightening prospect. Am I doomed to spend my final years with failing eyesight and hearing, stiff and incontinent? Or are these just the normal fears of a man in his fifties, thinking things can only go downhill from here?

Not everyone sees this increased longevity in a positive light. It makes people uneasy. Some speak of a disaster that has befallen us. There are estimates that half of the over-sixty-fives that have ever lived are currently alive today. Why has no one pulled the emergency brake? The certainties of the past have given way to prospects that do not yet appear in clear focus. And this has all happened extremely quickly. When we think of getting old, many of us look to the lives of our parents or grandparents as a beacon to help us navigate the stormy seas of life. But between the time of our grandparents and the time we become grandparents ourselves there are four generations, spanning a period of a hundred years or so. That is why it is wrong to think that we can take the life stories of our parents and grandparents as a blueprint for the way our own lives should unfold. Those images are no model for the life that awaits us. We can drink deeply from their skills and knowledge, but life moves forward, not back.

If you care to listen, old people will tell you that life is hard work. Getting old is associated with loss — sometimes it is unexpected and early loss, but, increasingly, it comes slowly, and later in life. We must prepare for this and adapt accordingly. Arthur Rubenstein (1887–1982), one of the world’s greatest pianists, was able to enthral audiences with his playing to a very old age. He compensated for his loss of light-fingeredness by limiting his repertoire, by practising more, and by starting pieces more slowly, so that he could more easily quicken his playing when necessary.

Fortunately, older people are usually well able to adapt to this loss of their functions. The elderly are generally happy with their health. Two-thirds describe their own state of health as ‘good to very good’. However, despite this positive view, many people don’t want to accept the idea they, like everyone else, will inevitably get older: ‘Why does that have to be so?’ Funnily enough, when asked whether they want to remain healthier for longer, everyone answers in the positive. ‘Of course!’ is the unanimous cry. And
staying healthier for longer is something we are getting increasingly better at, with the result that we are living increasingly longer lives.

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