Is this an old man?

Is this an old man?
  • People over the age of 65 are rebelling about being called old. In the past, the word conjured up an image of a little white-haired lady, dressed in black and using a walking stick, but nowadays “many over-65s are in better shape than they have ever been before”, say sociologists

She is 67, but refuses to be described as old.

The word has a negative inference, associated with deterioration and disability, and she doesn't like it.

“I have all my faculties; some may not be as good as others, but they don't restrict me at all,” insists Carmen García.

She retired two years ago after a lifelong career as a teacher. “At that moment I had to find myself; society no longer thought I was useful or productive and I noticed a change in the way people treated me,” she recalls.

Now, she is the president of the Spanish Confederation of Organisations of the Elderly (CEOMA), which she says is a growing association and is playing an important role in influencing public policies, health budgets, forecasts of ageing and the social perception of older people.

Those who are in their sixties today are nothing like those of a few decades ago (life expectancy today is 83; in 1960 it was 69) and the criteria used until now to consider somebody as being old no longer correspond to the real image of ageing.

In that case, when does somebody become old? Traditionally old age has begun at 65 because it coincides with retirement.

It is therefore easy to calculate, universally recognised and used unquestioningly in studies and for laws.

However, this chronological age does not take into account present-day improvements in health, or the level of disability of older people, or an increasing life expectancy.

“If instead of using that fixed figure, we used a flexible one which is related to life expectancy, it would correct part of the problem.

That's what is known as 'prospective age',” says Carmen.

Under this criteria, which is set out in the study called 'A profile of elderly people in Spain 2017. Basic statistic indicators' carried out by the Senior Board of Scientific Research (CSIC), a person becomes old 15 years before they die.

That means that in Spain, which is the country with the second highest life expectancy after Japan (80.4 years for men and 85.9 for women), men would start their old age at 65 and women at 70.

No objective criteria

Beyond the statistics, sociologists agree that there are no objective criteria to establish an age at which a person stops being middle-aged and becomes old.

“The traditional idea of old age is associated with a certain fragility in terms of health and nobody would call somebody of 65 or 70 old these days unless they were in a bad way, could hardly look after themselves or were economically dependent.

The social image of old age implies dependency. Nowadays, though, most people are independent thanks to a pension system which 50 years ago didn't provide enough for them to live autonomously,” says Elisa Chuliá, the head of Sociology at UNED.

“Only a few decades ago the image of a 60-year-old woman would be someone who was 1.5 metres tall, dressed in black, white hair pulled back into a band and a body which showed all the signs of a lifetime of hard work.

That is very different from today, where an increasing number of people over the age of 80 are in excellent health, retain most of their physical and cognitive abilities, take part in activities and have a very positive attitude to life,” explains Juan Carlos Zubieta, professor of Sociology at the University of Cantabria.

He says that old age, like other stages in life, is a “social construction” which is based on biological factors, socio-cultural characteristics and individual status.

“In today's society, the connotations associated with the world 'old' are especially negative, as a consequence of the logic of the market and of advertising, where new is associated with better and old is considered obsolete, disposable and useless,” he says.

In Spanish two words are used to signify age: 'viejo' (old) and 'anciano' (ancient).

“Nobody says their shoes are 'ancianos', but that's what elderly people are called,” says María Jesús Mancho, the head of Spanish Language at Salamanca university.

“The word 'anciano' comes from the mediaeval adverb 'anzi', which meant 'from before', or 'a long time before something'.

These people have lived a long time, but you can't quantify it. It's not just a matter of language, because there are sociocultural values which differ from one country to another,” she explains.

For María Jesús, the word 'old' is not an insult but it does have some “tremendously negative” connotations.

In her opinion, someone 'anciano' is a person who is older than a 'viejo', but says it is a 'more noble' description.

“You understand that they may be more frail, but that isn't what matters,” she says.

For that reason, and also because of the tone of voice used when saying each word, it is not the same to refer to someone as old, ancient, grandfather, member of the third age or elderly person.

“I don't care which word people use, but it matters to me how they use it,” insists Miguel de Haro, who at the age of 90 collaborates with CEOMA and leads a completely active and independent life.

“I was better when I was 45, but I'm not complaining,” says Miguel, who after studying Law and running a printing business fulfilled a lifelong dream at the age of 85 when he presented his doctoral thesis.

Another example of vitality is Robert Marchand.

This Frenchman, who set the time record for over-100s on a bicycle, announced last week that he was retiring from competition cycling, at the age of 106.

This wasn't because he wanted to: it was on the advice of his doctors, who fear for his health after so many years of physical effort.

Life expectancy continues to rise, and Spain is no exception.

In 1998, only 3,474 people reached their 100th birthday; two decades later, that figure has multiplied almost by five.

The Continual Register of Inhabitants which is drawn up by the National Institute of Statistics (INE) shows that this appears to be an ongoing phenomenon and calculates that within ten years there will be more than 100,000 Spanish centenarians.

Sociologist Elisa Chuliá is happy about these advances: “There is nothing better in the universe than living longer in better conditions,” she says, although she believes this phenomenon should be accompanied by a review of the pension system.

“What we pay in to the system only covers 20 or 30 years of life after retirement.

Some people are at their best at 65, with good health, free time and enough money to enjoy life.

Some even think about divorcing and enjoying a second youth, and that would have been unthinkable not long ago,” she points out.

The value of experience

Traditionally, older people have always enjoyed a certain status within society: they were valued for their experience, for keeping traditions alive and for being archivists of history.

“Now, all that is available on a computer at any time,” says Juan Carlos Zubieta.

However, their social status has risen in recent years with the economic crisis: “many have played a vital role in supporting their families, thanks to their pensions,” he says.

Other experts say that although originally an 'anciano' was a person with a great deal of knowledge, nowadays they are often criticised in society for “being a waste” of resources.

“With that negative approach, which is shown by the whole of society, who is going to want to be part of that group?” asks José Antonio López Trigo, president of the Spanish Geriatrics and Gerontology Society.

He explains that from the point of view of human biology, ageing begins when the growth hormone ceases to increase its levels, at the age of around 27 to 30.

“From then onwards, genetics come into play: they have a 28 per cent influence on the way we age, and environmental factors determine the other 72 per cent.

The way a person will age is down to those factors” says José Antonio López Trillo.

He insists that the age at which somebody becomes old is “very subjective.”

However, a document from the World Health Organisation defines a patient of geriatric age as being over 80.

“That is the time when their physical decline starts to be evident,” José Antonio explains.