Focus on Older People

By Jane Gates

It’s the International Year of Older Persons, and we are being encouraged to try to break down intergenerational barriers between young and old people.

Oops — that’s older people.

But what does it mean to be an older person these days? It certainly doesn’t have the same meaning it did at the beginning of the century — for that matter, even in the middle. And it most certainly will not have the same meaning in another 50 years.

The United Nations defines an older person as someone over 60. The Canadian government defines an older person as over 65. But even these may be fleeting categorizations.

Since 1920, the average life expectancy has increased by an average of seven years for males, and by 13 years for females. This has largely been due to advances in education, health care and technology.

Now, some medical experts are predicting that over the next few years the average lifespan may increase by another 20 years — an incredible medical achievement.

But not one without consequences.

The proportion of older people in societies around the world is going to increase dramatically as we head into the new millennium. The combination of increased lifespan and aging baby boomers will change the entire economic, social and cultural fabric of our society.

Statistics Canada predicts that by 2041 the proportion of people over 65 will increase to 23 per cent from the current 12 per cent. This will mean a quadrupling of those people 85 years and over.

It will probably give a whole new meaning to the term “older.” Who knows, maybe some day this term will be reserved for those over 100.

But even if the definition of the word doesn’t change, the implications probably will. Older will no longer imply reaching the end of a career at 65. It will no longer imply kissing an active sex life goodbye. It will no longer imply being put out to pasture — of no use to society.

Already things are changing. Older people are becoming increasingly vocal in self-advocacy, returning to school, and having fulfilling sex lives. They are pursuing more varied lifestyles, and many are continuing to work well past standard retirement age.

However, the changing proportion and role of the older members of society is going to require some adjustment on the part of the younger members. There may be resentment, as parents have to move in with grown children, compete with them for jobs, and use a large proportion of health care dollars.

It will take respect, understanding, and a willingness to accept the value of older people’s contribution to society. It will mean taking the time to understand what it’s like to be older.

Whatever that means.