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Beyond the limitations of ageing

’Anna, it really is time you went to bed – I’m tired.’ ‘Mummy, you’re not tired, you’re old!’ Bedtime conversation between the author (43) and her daughter (5).

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Age seems to be a question of perspective. It makes you wonder when exactly you start getting old. Does age put everything into a different perspective if life expectancy increases? Surely it’s only other people who get old, isn’t it? Ageing really does seem to be relative. According to studies carried out by psychologists at the University of Virginia, in cognitive terms, we start to age as early as the age of 27. That being said, memory degradation does not start until we are 37 and many cognitive abilities that are connected to learning – such as expanding our vocabulary or general knowledge – continue to improve until we are 60. Even at an advanced age, the brain can kick-start new areas within itself after a stroke to compensate for lost cranial capacity in other areas. It is only when we hit 75 that the physical and cognitive limitations start to gather speed. That is, in statistical terms of course, and by the time we are 80 the line gets steeper and steeper.

If we believe what the statisticians tell us, one in every two new-born babies now has a good chance of living to be at least 100. Medical advancements and healthy diets are continually extending lifespans in developed countries. Old people are becoming a normal part of society, everywhere. As a result, sooner or later each of us will have to honestly ask ourselves a question: what it will be like when we are older? After all, every-one wants a long life.

Age is all in the Mind

The problem is, no-one wants to be old. Most people in our society have a negative image of age. When we think about ageing, apart from wrinkles and things beginning to deteriorate physically and mentally, we often associate age with poverty, loneliness or dementia. Society is not getting older, the definition of age is just shifting. Age is in the mind. “People’s personal identity is not necessarily linked to their age in years,” explains the psychiatrist Professor Michael Lehofer. He is calling for a return to a culture of wisdom and away from a culture of knowledge, placing value on knowledge based on experience. 
According to Harry Gatterer, the growing number of older people is an opportunity to achieve ‘new levels of vitality’. Gatterer is co-author of the Pro-Aging Book of Scenarios – The Old Make Us Young, which is published by the German futurology institute, Zukunftsinstitut: “It’s only the wisdom of the elderly that makes it possible for us to cope with complex problems and deal with crises”. That being said, a prerequisite of this is a paradigm shift away from an obsession with youth to a carefully managed approach to the process of ageing. Gatterer sees ‘Pro-Aging’ as imperative for society in the 21st century.

Lifestyle comes before life stage

We do not grow older, we just age differently. At first, we even get younger. People in their 50s are now more like 40-year-olds in terms of socio-cultural and behavioural patterns. Experts have even found a term for the shift away from older people’s traditional roles: down-aging. Instead of winding down for retirement, more and more older people continue to contribute to or play a role in society – working as volunteers, finding other gainful activities, even studying towards a degree. This is sometimes because they want to, sometimes because they feel they should. 
The boundaries of old age are shifting and the stereotypes are becoming more fuzzy. It is no longer about chronological age, it is more about lifestyle, revolving around values (based on experience), people’s attitudes and trends. Ageing is often confused with the biological ageing (senescence) of society. According to the futur-ologist Matthias Horx, this is based on a misconception. He believes that self-actualisation would not be possible in the first place if it were not for longer life expectancies: “If you summon up the courage to start again from the beginning at the age of 50, life takes on a new perspective,” he emphasises.

Confidently wuitting the comfort zone

A 2014 survey by the German ageing think tank DZA revealed that old people know what they want these days, are more active than ever and on average they have more money than younger people. There is an entire industry dedicated to the needs of this expanding target group. So there are ‘convenience bath tubs’ that you don’t have to step into or ‘senior mobiles’ for all kinds of needs – showing clever technology and design can compensate for the limitations of ageing.

Despite this, studies also show that if you want to grow old properly, you will have to leave your comfort zone and engage in ‘active participation’. So participation comes first, before accessibility? Rather than focus on deficits, elderly care homes now bank on the resources and skills of their residents. As much as possible, they try to involve them in everyday activities they are famil-iar with and used to, such as ironing, peeling potatoes or gardening. Mixing physical and mental exercise with social activity fosters continuity and a feeling of normal-ity, even if certain faculties are weakening.

One age research pioneer, the Austrian professor Leopold Rosenmayr, believes being active in old age is about three key priorities: walking, learning and love (3Ls in German: Laufen, Lernen, Lieben). One issue that remains for each individual, however, is how to enjoy life to the full when you are old, especially if your own life has become slower, you are forgetful, things hurt or you are in mourning. The ever-present yearning for things to slow down a bit, especially among the younger generation, could take on a whole new meaning in society. Maybe those of a really advanced age will become trailblazers or the new awareness coaches.

The oracles of tomorrow

What it actually feels like growing old can ultimately only be guesswork for young people. But to discover what it feels like for your own body as things start to age, product developers, car designers and architects can now use a special suit: the Age Explorer. It has a yellow visor to simulate poor eyesight with weights on the joints to simulate stiff limbs. Ultimately, old people can even become tomorrow’s eyes and ears for futurologists and use their experience to help society and business, for example in product development. People need products and places that are easy to use or access, that create the right atmosphere and can be discovered with the senses and are marketable in all phases of life.

Instead of seeing age as a thin dividing line between life and the eternity beyond, one that restricts and spells limitation – what could be more appealing than a concept of age as an open house, with rooms of discovery in totally different designs? The challenge will be to explore these rooms on a totally personal level, but also on a societal level like some kind of continual process. Instead of being driven by fear and sometimes even resistance, this process could be one of insatiable fascination and curiosity, comparable with human fascination for outer space or the deepest oceans.

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