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"In old age you need structure and recognition"
How to prepare for growing old, what guarantees life satisfaction in old age and what advantages old age can bring - the Goethe-Institut correspondent Anna Laletina talked to Prof. Dr. Ursula M. Staudinger, psychologist, aging researcher and rector of the Technical University of Dresden.
How can or should you shape your life so that you look forward to getting old? You definitely have to be proactive and you can't just wait for society to change on its own and for aging to suddenly be seen as something overwhelmingly positive.
The fact is that we all want to grow old, but we don't want to be old that much. When you ask someone how old they would like to be, a lot of people say "around 80". That is quite close to the average life expectancy in Germany. The difficulty begins when you really experience aging yourself. Often times, when we think of old age, we think of more negative things than positive things. For example, most of them are afraid of their own need for care, especially of the loss of their autonomy. But that these things happen is more the exception than the rule in old age: A small percentage of the population actually needs care in old age, and if so, then it occurs more in the last few years or even only months of life or among the really very old. So, we often have a distorted picture in mind of what age really means. You have to deal with these stereotypes, which are often out of date and come from a time when aging was different.
If you want to do something yourself to age healthily, you have to consider some lifestyle tips. The first is: the older we get, the more important it is to keep ourselves physically fit. Both in terms of endurance as well as muscle strength, balance and flexibility. The older we get - and that starts in our mid-30s - the more our muscles break down in substance. We must therefore actively counter this with something. When we retire and no longer go to work every day, are no longer forced to take certain routes, the body is less challenged. Then you have to make sure that you do other physical activity. It is therefore better to have started before 65. Nevertheless, you can of course still start in old age - better than not at all.
The second big area is nutrition: you have to pay attention to what you eat, whether you are eating well and not too much. But you don't have to be slim. On the contrary: You know that at an advanced age, from around 60-70, it is better if you have small fat deposits, because with illnesses, for example, you can lose a lot of weight very quickly. If you don't have enough reserves then it can even be life-threatening.
Thirdly, you have to keep your brain busy, in other words, keep dealing with new things that can sometimes be exhausting or exhausting. Since you prefer to do the things you already know and can do, a conscious decision and effort are required here. Some people do it on their own, but others resist and argue that they don't have time and that it is so tedious. That's fine too; however, one must be aware that this has certain consequences. Usually. Of course there are also people who do nothing of what I just mentioned and still live to be 110 years old and are physically and mentally fit for a long time. Our genetic makeup determines about 20% of the length of life.
What are the state and companies doing or what should they do to change the negative image of old age?
It starts with the fact that you have to be aware of the following: The more older people - by which I mean those who are over 60 or even over 65 years old - actively participate in the labor market, the more positive the age picture becomes. When I watch older people at work, I notice that it cannot be that all old people are demented or unproductive. That is why you have to change the conditions on the labor market: it has to be easy and easy to return to paid work even after you retire, if you want to. One must then not be “punished” for this by tax surcharges or similar measures or be kept from work.
It is also important that we adapt our education system to longer life: It has to be a matter of course that you can still educate yourself later in life - that you not only continue your education, but also start a completely new education, e.g. at university Study begins. The education and training system must not only be designed for 20 to 30 year olds, but must also take into account 40, 50 and 60 year olds.
Presence on the labor market and participation in the education system, even in old age, are two very important areas. There is also a third area with the health system. It would have to be redesigned in such a way that it really deserves its name. At the moment it is more of a disease system in which money flows mainly when someone is already sick. Preventive measures are still falling behind.
"The interest in high-performing senior citizens is increasing," you said several times in your interviews. You repeatedly emphasize that work - which also includes part-time employment - is very important for the well-being of the elderly. In my opinion, this is a very capitalist approach, because this overemphasis on work makes one think of an “evaluation” of people only on the basis of their ability and willingness to do the work. Is it possible to talk about successful aging outside of the work context? Or is paid work such an important element in aging well?
Aging is by no means just a question of work; there are many paths to successful aging. But it is still important that I find ways to take on responsibility even in old age and that I have an obligatory structure in my everyday life that 'forces me to do certain things, even if it is exhausting for me. The benefit of paid work is that it comes with that obligation. That's why I torture myself out of bed in the morning, even if I don't feel like it, and go out of the house even when I'm not feeling well. We know that work is also good because of the social contacts you have there and the fact that you are noticed outside of the family. These are all things that are included in this work package. If I can put all of these things together in another package, it doesn't have to be paid work. For example, if I take care of my grandchildren and thus help my children to maintain their work-life balance, this can serve the same purpose as paid work: I regularly take on responsibilities, but also get recognition from my children, who know that my commitment cannot be taken for granted. Of course, I could also look for volunteer work for this purpose. The interesting thing about life is that it is bad for me when I have to meet too many demands, but also when I have too little to do. The optimal level of demands is of course different from person to person. But if you have nothing to do, things can go well for a while, but at some point you realize that you are looking for these obligations because you need variety and challenges. Then you have to start creating structures. That's actually what it's about.
The role of the family is now controversial in society as a whole. Above all, the core family, which consists of a spouse and children, is considered by many to be very important for old age. Still, younger people in particular say that other types of human alliances can replace the nuclear family even in old age. What do you think?
The data speaks for itself in this regard: it doesn't have to be the family. But they have to be people whom you trust, with whom you can open up and not have to pretend and you can also rely on each other wholeheartedly. However, many people only have these experiences in their families. However, research has found that people who have no families seek similar close relationships. For example, as part of the Berlin Aging Study, we met women who lost their fiancés or husbands in the war and who no longer looked for a new partner in their lives because they were still so attached to their old love. Nevertheless, these women have looked for other people who are close to them and who have become, so to speak, their “families of choice”. There, as in biological families, the test subjects were valued and needed and had a high level of well-being with their social relationships. So you can see here that humans are really inventive in this regard.
In addition, let's talk about positive changes in personality in old age. They say that the latter can still develop towards the end of life. What are the valuable properties that can only be achieved in old age?
The balance immediately occurs to me - studies all over the world show that. As we get older, we become more balanced in terms of our emotions. There are fewer outliers, neither downwards nor upwards. This famous phrase, "exultant, saddened to death" seldom applies to the elderly. You become more relaxed because you have experienced so much and know that life just goes on.
The people who are young now are characterized by higher demands and dynamism in their professional life and are also very open - do you think that the transition to old age could be easier for them than the generations before? As is well known, your thesis is that openness must be encouraged among the elderly. In the younger generation, however, this is clearly present.
Each generation faces different challenges. It is, for example, very likely that the "sick old age", i.e. the onset of illnesses in old age, will be delayed a little more and the younger generation will be able to stay active longer than today's old people. In addition, this generation will most likely also be faced with fewer limitations in old age and with different ideas about aging. These are now being changed because the baby boomers are showing what it can mean to be 60, 65 or 70. Of course, the next generations benefit from this when they get old.
We also have to observe the effects of digitization and the ever-increasing density of information to which the younger generations have to adapt and deal with. It can very well be that the younger generations get mentally fitter into old age because they are cognitively challenged more than their parents and grandparents. The openness that you mentioned is a very interesting thesis. But you know: even today's old people, who are often perceived as stuck, were open as young people. However, it can be that the decline in openness is being delayed further and further due to the increasing flexibility that society is pushing. I think that is likely, but I cannot say for sure.
It is noteworthy that you change your life drastically every ten years or so. You spent a long time at the Jacobs University in Bremen, then a researcher at Columbia University in New York, and recently you started all over again at the TU Dresden. You have said several times that variety and variety are important to you. Would you like to demonstrate with your example how one can shape one's life?
I think that's more of a personal need. Often one examines the things that are important to oneself. When I think about whether I want to change my life as much as I have done a few times, I also had to overcome myself, because such changes are of course very time-consuming, unsettling and exhausting. But I know that it takes me further than if I just keep doing what I've been doing for the past ten years. So I'm already trying to apply the results of aging research to my own life. But I don't do this to influence others. Everyone has to decide for themselves.
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