How to prepare for aging, what guarantees life satisfaction in old age and what are the benefits of old age - about this Goethe-Institut correspondent Anna Laletina talked with Professor Ursula M. Staudinger - psychologist, aging researcher and Rector of the Technical University of Dresden.
How can and should you structure your life to make aging a joyful experience? Surely we should be proactive - in the sense that we shouldn't just wait for society to change on its own and for aging to suddenly be seen as something predominantly positive
The fact is, we all want to live to a ripe old age, but we don't so much want to be old. When you ask people what age they would like to live to, many will put the number in the neighborhood of 80. And that is very close to the average life expectancy in Germany. The difficulties begin when one lives through the aging process oneself. When we think about old age, we often think more negative thoughts than positive ones. Many people, for example, fear that they will always need outside help in old age; above all, they are afraid of losing their own independence. But this is more the exception than the rule: only a small percentage of the elderly population needs constant care and, if they do, it is only in the last years or even months of life or at a very advanced age. So we often have a rather distorted image of aging. We need to deal with these stereotypes, which are often outdated and were formed at a time when aging really was different.
If you yourself want to do something to reach old age in good health, there are some lifestyle recommendations you can follow. One: The older we get, the more important it is to keep our bodies in shape. This includes stamina, muscular strength, balance, and flexibility. The older we get - and this process begins at the age of 35 - the more tissue is lost in our muscles. We have to actively counteract this process. When we retire and we no longer have to go to work every day, when nothing forces us to walk the usual routes, we move less. In that case, we should engage in other types of physical activity. It is better, of course, to start doing this before the age of 65. But you can also start at an older age - it's better than not starting at all.
Another important topic is nutrition. You need to watch what you eat, whether it's balanced and not too much. There is no need, however, to be thin as a match. On the contrary: it is known that in old age, starting at 60-70, it is much better when a person has a small reserve of fatty tissue, because, for example, during illnesses, a person can lose weight very quickly, and when the body does not have enough fat reserves, it can be life-threatening.
The third is not to let the brain relax, which is to try new activities that can be very intense and require a lot of exertion. This requires a conscious decision and effort, since a person is much more willing to do what he/she is already familiar with and able to do. Some people are always trying new activities anyway, while others, on the contrary, resist it and argue that they do not have time and that it is too tiring. This, too, is normal. But then you have to realize that your lifestyle will have certain consequences. As a rule of thumb. Of course, there are people who don't do any of the things I was talking about, and live to 110 years old, staying in good shape both physically and intellectually for a long time. Our longevity is about 20% determined by our genes.
What does the government and business do or what should they do to change the negative image of aging?
To begin with, we should consciously do the following: the more elderly people are present in the labor market - by this I mean those who are over 60 or even over 65 - the more positive the image of old age is. When there are elderly employees at work, it becomes clear: it simply cannot be the case that the entire elderly population suffers from dementia or is unproductive. Therefore, we need to change the conditions on the labor market: if a person wants it, it should be easy and in principle possible for him or her to engage in gainful employment again after retirement. Such behavior should not be "penalized" by higher taxes or other measures.
It is also important to adapt our educational system to a longer life. It should be taken for granted that a person can be educated later in life - and it is not just a question of upgrading one's qualifications, but also of getting a new education, such as a university. The education system should be designed not only for 20- and 30-year-olds, but also for 40-, 50-, and 60-year-olds.
The presence of older people in the labor market and their getting an education are two important elements. The third is the health care system. We need to reorganize it so that it really deserves its name. Right now it is more of a "disease system" because the money only goes there when a person is already sick, whereas more importance should be given to measures to prevent disease.
You have said many times in past interviews that interest in working-age retirees is growing. You keep emphasizing that work, including part-time work, is very important to the well-being of older people. This seems to me to be a very capitalistic approach, because an overemphasis on work forces people to be "evaluated" based solely on their ability or willingness to work. Can we talk about successful aging outside the context of work as well? Or is paid work such an important element for good old age?
Aging is by no means a matter of work alone. "Successful aging" can be achieved in many ways. What is important, however, is that even as a person ages, he/she must find opportunities to take responsibility and there must be a structure in his/her daily routine that "forces" him/her to do certain things, even when it is stressful. The advantage of paid work is that it entails responsibilities. For the sake of it, I drag myself out of bed in the morning, even if I don't feel like it, and I leave the house, even if I don't feel so good. We also know that the positive side of work is social contact and the fact that the person there gets recognition outside the family. These are all things that go in addition to work. Sometimes you can find all the same things in activities other than paid work. For example, when I take care of my grandchildren to help my children maintain a work-life balance, it can fulfill the same purpose as paid work. I take on regular responsibilities, but in return I get gratitude from my children because they don't take my help for granted. I could also find some kind of volunteer activity for myself.
What I find interesting about life: too many challenges is bad, but too few is also bad. Of course, everyone needs a different number of challenges. When a person has absolutely nothing to do, for a long time this situation can be quite comfortable, but at some point a person notices that he/she is looking for a duty, because he/she needs a change of scenery and a set task. Then it is necessary to create a structured activity for oneself. This is what it's all about.
Throughout society, the role of the family is now being challenged. Many believe that the nuclear family, consisting of partners/partners and children, plays a particularly important role in old age. But some, especially younger people, say that other forms of unions can replace the nuclear family even in old age. What do you say to that?
The research findings in this case say quite unambiguous things: It doesn't have to be a family. But it does have to be people you trust, people you can open up to and be yourself and rely on unconditionally. Many people can only experience all of this in a family. At the same time, research has shown that people who don't have families are looking for family-like intimacy. For example, while working on the Berlin Study on Aging, we met women who had lost their fiancés or husbands during the war and who did not get new partners afterwards because they could not let go of the old love. These women, however, sought out others close to them, which became their so-called "families of choice. In these families, the respondents were as valued as they were in their biological families, where they felt needed, and their level of satisfaction with social relationships was high. So we can be sure: humans are really resourceful in this sense.
Let's talk some more about positive personality changes as we age. You say that personality can change for the rest of your life. What are some valuable personality traits that can only be acquired with age?
The one that comes to mind right away is poise - studies all over the world show this. As we get older, we become more balanced in terms of our emotions. There are fewer sharp swings, either up or down. The famous expression "now the sky is rapt, now death is longing" can rarely be applied to the elderly. A person becomes more relaxed because he/she has already been through so much and knows that life, no matter what, goes on.
Today's younger generation has higher aspirations and more dynamic work, but they are also very open to new things - do you think they will have an easier transition into old age than previous generations? Your thesis, as you know, is that it is necessary to develop openness to new things among older people. But young people certainly already have this quality.
Every generation has its own difficulties. It is very likely, for example, that in the case of the current generation the onset of the "age of illness" will be further delayed and thus this generation will remain active longer than previous generations. Moreover, it is very likely that the current generation will face fewer limitations in old age and that it will in principle have to deal with different conceptions of old age than those that exist now. Perceptions are just now changing as the baby boomer generation demonstrates what it means to be 60, 65 and 70 years old. Subsequent generations will benefit as they get older.
We must also observe the consequences of digitalization and the ever-increasing density of information that the younger generations must adapt to and reckon with. It is likely that these generations will reach old age in better mental shape than their parents and grandparents because they have more cognitive challenges. Your point about openness to new things is interesting, but you know, the current elderly, who are often considered stagnant, were also open to new things when they were young. Maybe because society is forcing more and more flexibility, their openness to the new will last longer. It is possible, but I cannot say for sure.
It is noteworthy that you yourself change your life radically about every ten years. For a long time you worked at Jacobs University in Bremen, then you were a researcher at Columbia University in New York, and not long ago you changed again, becoming Rector of the Technical University in Dresden. You have said many times that diversity and change are important to you. Do you want to demonstrate consciously by your own example how one can structure one's life?
I think it's more of a personal need. Often we explore things that are important to ourselves. Every time I consider whether I want to change my life again as much as I have changed it many times before, I also have to overcome myself, because, of course, such changes are very time-consuming, make me doubt and tire me out. But I know it will be better for my development than if I keep doing what I've been doing for the last ten years. So yes, I am trying to apply the results of the study of old age to my life. But I'm not doing it to influence others. It's a question everyone has to decide for themselves.