“Aging is a gift and a chance for the whole society.”
CEO, Center of Gerontology,
Prague Vice-Dean for International Relations, Faculty of Humanities, Charles University in Prague
CELLO-ILO-CZ – Centre of Expertise in Longevity and Long-Term Care
Member of International Longevity Center Global Alliance
Visiting Professor, University of the West of Scotland
Despite the fact that the population as such is aging, the cult of youth seems to dominate. Will there be a cult of an old age?
You are right that the cult of youth prevails in the Czech Republic. For example, if we compare Czech and foreign television programmes, we see that the average age of anchor men and anchor women is higher in Western and Nordic countries than in ours. Older people are on the TV screen more common out there. And this is not true only about TV, but it also applies to professions where mostly young people are represented in the Czech Republic, such as secretaries or assistants, project managers, but also flight attendants. It seems to me that in many areas we are on the right track towards the western society but in terms of respect to diversity, and “otherness”, including the age, we still have a long way to go.
Reaching an advanced age is an achievement of a person as an individual, who has been able to successfully deal with and sometimes even fight with one’s own life. It is thanks to the environment in which people live; in wealthy societies people live longer and they also get better healthcare. With all these gifts and accomplishments, both on a social and individual level, we tend to live longer than any previous generation ever had. And paradoxically, we are starting to complain about the fact and what problems aging brings, and so on. Fortunately, this querulous language is less and less common in developed countries, and people there are more aware that aging is a gift and a chance for the whole society.
Throughout the history when only a few individuals managed to reach an advance age, these people then were generally respected for their wisdom and experience. Ultimately the Senate was created as an institution that gathered older and more experienced individuals. And going even further in history, in Stone Age, aging was actually an evolutionary advantage; it represented the transfer of practical experience and skills from generation to generation, especially from the generation of grandparents to grandchildren. Whether we will create a cult of older age, I cannot answer. But I do not think it would be a loss. I am not a fan of cults, not even the “pseudo-cult” of youth. I think our society should respect all of us.
With regards to mental fitness, is there a truth to popular saying what comes around, goes around? What can nowadays people in their forties (and others) do to slow down brain aging?
There is a simple answer to this question. We should continue to learn, getting to know new things and new people, and also continue to be active both physically and mentally – and keep working. We should have a healthy diet. Live well. Life stories of people reaching longevity show that these people have become artists of life they have managed to come to terms with and these terms were not easy at all times.
Besides gerontology, you also address the issue of Alzheimer’s disease and you frequently mention that Oskar Fischer, a Prague psychiatrist, was the one to make the discovery. So the Czechs were at the top once the disease was discovered. As a complete contrast, I was puzzled by the news that the population of two million seniors is served by 440 gerontologists in the Czech Republic.
Yes, the role of physician Oskar Fischer from Prague was important. Oskar Fischer also published his work in 1907, the same year when Alois Alzheimer published a famous case study of his patient Augusta D. Oskar Fischer had already a whole group consisting of twelve patients. Despite this fact, the disease was later named after Alois Alzheimer. That is why me but also other colleagues, who are dealing with the problems of dementia, consider necessary and important to continue to remind others about the work of Oskar Fischer, both at home and abroad.
Considering the current situation, we have gone through a really tough year. There was a chance that geriatrics would be cancelled as an independent discipline after many years. This danger is probably over. There are medical fields which are important, not only in the care of elderly people, but also for the chronically ill, the number of which is also increasing.
The actual number of geriatricians is not the most serious problem. It is rather about the scope of work. Geriatrics never aspired to replace the work of general practitioners or internists. It is a discipline that is focused on specific age-related diseases, deals with functional status and possibilities for improvement, geriatric syndromes, especially fragility and cognitive disorders. Geriatricians should operate mainly in hospitals, coordinate the interdisciplinary teams at clinics, in larger care facilities. In the facilities providing long-term care, there should be geriatric practitioners or those who were trained in long-term care medicine. They all should promote a better quality of care for elderly patients, at all levels. That is the vision of the geriatric professional association. Our population will continue to get older, and one of the ways to face this situation is to maintain the good functional condition until the highest age possible.
Age diversity and the fact that for the first time in history the workplace brings together four generations working together at the same time, both topics have become frequently discussed issues for large corporations. Besides reverse mentoring and age diverse work groups, what are other trends with regards to the senior population that you see applicable in the business sphere?
I’m not an economist, so I will just add a few observations. It is widely known that the multigenerational work teams are more successful, and there is a lot of scientific evidence for it. That, of course, is very well known by big corporations (often in contrast to politicians) and addressing the issue improves their public image. Moreover, the often mentioned cliché that older people are “obstructing” positions on the labour market to the detriment of younger people, is not true at all. British Foresight Programme that I had the opportunity to attend showed in its findings that older and younger workers are rather complementary than competitive and they get along very well. Younger people are faster and better use new technologies, while older ones are slower but have the experience, which prevents repeating unnecessary steps, they also see and solve problems in a broader context, and thanks to the older ones not being so eager, they usually do not need to have control over many resources, vast projects or large teams of people, and if they do so, they do it more wisely and efficiently.
The media image of older people is in sharp contrast to the benefits that older people bring. If they are portrayed at all, they are mentioned as retirees, pensioners, the sick or the gullible ones that trust and become prey to liars and cheaters. Unfortunately, such statements often come even from politicians. The only positive message I found recently about seniors was in a commercial magazine promoting life and pension scheme insurance. I think that was rather sad…
You’re absolutely right, when we look at advertisement, older people are presented with the products dealing with constipation, incontinence, joint problems, dentures, etc. Luckily, flatulence has a multigenerational dimension. What a sad joke. I think we all just need to start being more aware and so start changing and challenging the media image. This should be a task for the public media, since we are all their licence payers. And there should be more engagement of various committees for public radio and television broadcasting, as these institutions should fulfil their supervisory role and pay attention to this aspect. One aspect that I find very important and underestimated is the use of language. Therefore, in the community of Alzheimer societies and among experts dealing with this expertise it is not appropriate to talk about a demented person as it can mean stupid. First of all, they are people, people with dementia or even better people living with dementia. However, this is not problem only in the Czech Republic. I see the situation improving here. The pensioner is now used mainly in the context of a pension scheme, not as a label for an older person. English has a similarly ugly term – the elderly – but it is still being used instead of the more correct form “older”. When I was in London, I saw places designated just for “the elderly”.
I found myself in a situation when I experienced the fate of the so-called “sandwich generation”, i.e. suddenly besides taking care of small children and working full-time, I had to provide a care for my aging and sick parents. I had to leave the company as they did not provide any flexibility that would help me to deal with the situation. There are only few part-time jobs in the Czech Republic, as well as lack of adequate facilities for respite care, which is contrary to the demographic trends as these situations will tend to increase. What are your recommendations?
I feel that in this country we work like crazy. Low salaries in many occupations are compensated by longer working hours or several combined working schemes. I know it from the academic environment, where salaries are so shamefully low that it is needed to seek opportunities to support yourself and your family from other sources on top of your work, such as grants, additional contracts and so on. This obviously has many negative impacts. You are correct that parttime employment does not practically exist in the Czech Republic. My recommendation is that people should be paid decently for their work, take it seriously and concentrate, and do it well. Talking about support and the so-called respite services is another big topic that goes beyond our interview. It is very good that currently there exists financial contribution for the care of those who need long-term help and support, but that is not enough. We need to have the right spectrum of services that could respond flexibly to the needs of people and their carers from family. Many caring families unnecessarily and prematurely deplete their forces and then choose institutional care solution, which is sometimes necessary, but it should be a rather extreme solution in a situation where other solutions are not possible. Most of us want to live at home. This is true regardless of age and disability or illness.
Your last words for readers of the magazine Czech and Slovak Leaders…
Aging is a normal process and aging is a normal part of our lives. It is, or it should be, the period of maturity. The fact that our society is getting older is the result of many positive factors. Disease and disability are not necessarily an integral part of an older age, but naturally they appear more often with age. Attitude to older people, providing adequate services and enabling them to live as long as possible in an environment where they want to live in, all this is a sign of a developed culture and society. We should be a society not only for children and healthy adults, but also for those who need our care and support.
By Linda Štucbartová