‘We have to start thinking radically differently about old age’

‘A positive outlook and healthy adaptability to old age will have an enriching and meaningful effect on our society’, writes Robert Boemen from Caritas Vlaanderen.

Our country is getting older, and this has major consequences for how our care for the elderly works. According to Robert Boemen, volunteer at Caritas Vlaanderen, we will have to look at old age radically differently and organize the care of our elderly fellow human beings differently.

‘DIn the way a society treats its elders, it unequivocally reveals the often carefully masked truth about its principles and purposes.’

Simone de Beauvoir wrote that in her work Old age from 1970. Her analysis of dealing with old age and the way we deal with the elderly and their care in our Western society is still relevant today.

A positive outlook and healthy adaptability to old age will have an enriching and meaningful effect on our society.

De Beauvoir then described the core of the problem that we still face today: a negative view of the elderly and a fear of identifying ourselves with old age. As a result, we place the elderly person outside society and he or she experiences a disproportionate burden in relation to his or her existence.

With an aging wave, of which we are only just beginning to see the peak appearing on the horizon, we will have to look at ourselves radically differently and organize the care of our elderly fellows differently. Long-term care, both intramural and extramural, will be needed more often and for longer as traditional care disappears from family and friends.

Of course, there are financial consequences and we will have to adapt the reality accordingly, but dealing with old age and caring for our elderly goes much further than that and is deeply rooted in society and culture. A positive outlook and healthy adaptability to old age will have an enriching and meaningful effect on our society. But for this we will have to actively connect the elderly with all age groups.

The challenge of the coming decades

Flanders is getting older, and this has major consequences for how our care for the elderly works. Currently, 1 in 5 people in Flanders is older than 65, and the group will only grow further. Because at the same time this is followed by a large group of 55-64-year-olds (approx. 14% of the population), who will also join the over-65s after a few years.

At the same time, the average age is increasing, so the group of elderly people aged 80+ is also growing. At present, this group has increased by approx. 27% in the past ten years, which brings us to a total of approx. 410,000 people, or 6% of the total Flemish population.

Up to and including 2050, the number of people over 60 will grow to a share of 20% of the projected world population.

In this, Flanders follows a European trend and is therefore not unique in this respect. But on a global scale, the consequences are even more serious. Up to and including 2050, the number of people over 60 will grow to a share of 20% of the projected world population. In total, 2 billion people will reach the age of 60 or older, while the average age continues to rise.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has therefore proclaimed the “Decade of Healthy Aging” (a project that runs from 2021 to 2030) and calls for a reassessment of our elderly in society. Longer ‘healthy ageing’ cannot be improved only by providing sufficient (financial) resources. It is necessary to think radically differently about old age.

For example, research has shown that negative images have a strong impact on the mental well-being of older people. It is even so strong that life expectancy can be drastically reduced as a result. For people with a negative age image, it can even mean a shortening of the age to 7.5 years.

ageism (a term that is difficult to translate into Dutch, but which encompasses all facets of age discrimination and negative interaction, both economic and cultural, with the elderly and old age) is deeply rooted in our society. ageism is particularly prevalent in the way we classify our care and organize our public spaces. Buildings and city infrastructure are not adapted to people with disabilities, and the digitization of many public services results in the exclusion of many elderly people.

Our care strategy therefore assumes that self-reliance and living at home for as long as possible is a given, while many elderly people do not have the resources or space to meet their needs or make their voice known to the responsible authorities in order to receive quality and loving care. The care they receive is often clinical, with little regard for the dignity of an old existence and a heavy focus on decline rather than activation.

Involve the elderly and create opportunities

The call to live longer at home should not lead to a lack of inclusion of the elderly in society and be a hidden cut in care for the elderly. Isolation and avoidance of care are lurking dangers.

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Intergenerational living offers a solution to this loneliness and also enables the elderly to remain involved in society for as long as possible, thus requesting and receiving the right kind of care. People who prefer not to live across generations should be able to integrate closely into the local community if they wish.

Volunteers are of great importance in this connection, and they should be supported to be able to carry out these tasks. Bringing attention to this need is a first step.

Intergenerational living offers a solution to this loneliness and also enables the elderly to remain involved in society for as long as possible.

For the care center, we face the challenge of first solving the staff shortage. In the meantime, however, we must also improve society’s view of the care center. Residential centers must be able to be a real home and not an extension of the hospital. The location is also decisive: in the middle of the town or village, or on the outskirts.

In both cases they need to be open to the local community and partnerships with local sports clubs, schools or businesses can make a valuable contribution. It provides opportunities to participate positively in society for as long as possible and will strengthen respect for the elderly in our society.

Caritas Vlaanderen wants to contribute to a review of old age and researches the importance of human dignity in elderly care. Inclusion and solidarity for everyone in our society are fundamental to our values ​​and goals.

Robert Boemen is a volunteer at Caritas Vlaanderen through the European Solidarity Corps.

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