Bring on the old ’uns!

“We all grow old, but age does not tell everything about a person” says Marja Jylhä, Professor of Gerontology.

“We all grow old, but age does not tell everything about a person” says Marja Jylhä, Professor of Gerontology.

“There are increasing numbers of families with five generations in Finnish society and more very old people than ever before.  We should be thinking how we could get those over pension age out of the pigeon hole and into the mainstream of life,” says Marja Jylhä, Professor of Gerontology.

Professor Jylhä, who works at the School of Public Health, researches ageing.  She finds the current societal decision-makers’ attitudes to old people primitive and outmoded.

“The functional ability of old people is getting better.  So it should be easier to arrange services even though the number of old people is on the increase.  This is certainly the case among 70-year-olds.  Also in  Finland research has shown that functional ability has  improved among people younger that 80 years..”

“For the first time in the world we are researching those over 90 in a series over several years and their functioning ability has not improved.  Thus in the decades to come there will be a great need for help and we should be prepared to this.”

The full picture of old age

Functional disability is  most common in the oldest old.  These age groups are the ones that are increasing fastest, but there has not been research on them.  A unique project is ongoing in Tampere entitled “Tervaskannot 90+”.

“It’s not bad news that people are actually living longer and longer if their health and condition remain reasonably good.  The decrease in mortality in old age has been so rapid  in recent years that improving functional ability has not kept pace.”

The research group at the School of Public Health at the University of Tampere researches old age from numerous perspectives.  Studies are currently ongoing on what use people make of services in the last years of their old age and what this costs, on old people’s thoughts on old age and health and on the public image of old age and older bimmigrants and their connections to relatives who live in in other countries, for example  in Russia and Canada.

People know about their health

Professor Jylhä is also interested in how people assess their own state of health since individuals’ own assessments in addition to medical pronouncements seem to predict how long they will live.

“In the last twenty years there have been a lot of research findings to show that the individual’s own estimation is a good measure, for example, for predicting how long that person will live.  Those who maintain that their health is very good survive longer than those who maintain that their health is fairly good and so on.  Within the age group this predictability goes step by step.”

“How does an individual know this?  Except from hearing from the doctors that they have diabetes or cancer people know something else and this is interesting.  All the time the radar in our heads is at work, how we feel, where it hurts, when your head is spinning, and nobody else knows this.”

“But when one’s own assessment is right, the real measure of health, everything goes, so yes, indeed, all health matters are related to a person’s position in society.  I can’t think of anything that is not connected.  The one in a better position has fewer ailments and a longer life.”

 How long should one live?

“There is no ceiling related to our species.  People are living longer in all the Western countries and there are more and more who are living to be 100 or 115 years old.  For a long life you need the right parents, the right living conditions and the right living habits and good luck.”

Old age is created by society and attitudes

Let’s ask a professor of gerontology: just what is aging?

“Ageing is fundamentally biological.  Once a person is fully grown the body begins to slowly decay.  This decay progresses at different rates in different organs and different individuals.  Nobody is actually exempt from aging although every so often some solutions to some problem are widely publicized.  Ageing is inevitable, I do not believe that it can be prevented; however, its progress can be delayed.”

“What this means to ageing people and to society is another matter.  What sort of a time old age is depends on people,” says Professor Jylhä.

“The condition of the body does not explain the content of old age, but rather the attitudes of a society.  In different societies there are different attitudes to old age, and here they are contradictory.  By and large our world abounds in the denial of old age.  All these stories about eternal youth are the same, as if to say that old age is awful and I don’t want to grow old, even though you might say that I have come a long way and am OK with old.”

“Nobody becomes wiser except by collecting experiences, but frequently old age and maturity are not appreciated even in this way and there is admiration for being childlike and not quite grown up in the style of “He’s the eternal little boy”. On the other hand all these tales about “wonderful old age” are the other side of that coin; no age group can be wonderful through and through.”

“Old people have been made into the main Other in this society.  In the press and in seminars they, and growing old in general, are talked about as if they have nothing at all to do with the speaker, an external object.  Old age is a time in everyone’s life unless Death steps in first.  For some it is the present, for others the future.” 

 Appreciation ends with retirement?

“The more one-sidedly society operates with the logic of economics the less appreciation there is for those people who can no longer be expected to generate economic benefit.”

“From the perspective of old people and children Finland seems a bleak culture, everyone here is in their own pigeon hole or some other place.  The segregation of the generations has gone quite a long way even though the future in Finland is clearly one in which as many as five generations will be alive simultaneously.”

“I do not support the idea of child labour and I don’t want to see children under school age at the driving wheel.  For people of a certain age I consider it a very good thing to retire, but in principle all the other opportunities in life should be open to people of all ages.  There are very few matters in which there is any need to classify people by age, let alone to deprecate old people.”

“Ultimately pushing old people to the sidelines and segregating them from the rest of society and life will cause us to start to fear old age because it is so frantically rejected.”

Professor Jylhä points out that even the lives of the nonagenarians her research group studies are normal lives.

 “It’s not generally a matter of being old full-time, but of eating, drinking, human relations, consuming, normal routine.”

“I always want to emphasise that one should cut down the classifying of people on the basis of age.  Age is important, but not in all matters.  Age is not the main denominator of people in their eighties and nineties; that’s not all that life is about.”

“Old age is a real megatrend and the decision-makers should not refer to it as a disturbing factor or catastrophe that has just happened.  Ageing of the population is a long-term change in the world and we should take account of it, consider what society should be like so that people of all ages can take more part in it.”

“The streets are full of octogenarians but the attitude of society towards them is primitive.  The decision-makers seem to be asking how to let “them” cause the fewest problems.  Rather they should be thinking how people of different ages could live more harmoniously together.”

Text by Taina Repo
Photo Touko Hujanen