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Old age: a problem or an opportunity?


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Diario de Navarra, El Comerio, La Voz de Avilés, El Diario Montañés

Gerardo Castillo Ceballos

School of Education and Psychology of the University of Navarra

 In a society that mythologizes youth with no more merit than its age, old age is relegated to the background. There is a fear of growing old because society conveys a negative view of this phase of life. Being young would be an opportunity, while being old would be a problem. This is implied by the proliferation of advertisements in which old people look young thanks to a certain anti-wrinkle cream or a creepy subject . Behind these commercial offers there is a message: "You are old because you want to be, be young". The words "old age" and "old" have recently fallen into disuse because of their supposed anachronism. Those who accept it would do well to know how the English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon expresses the value of old: "Old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read". Good people, like good wine, get better with time.

The term "old age" is being replaced by some euphemisms: the third age, the golden age, our elders, etc. But sweetening the reality of old age shows that it is not valued, due to prejudices towards this stage of the life cycle. Old age needs no make-up. For Cicero, "the old man cannot do what a young man does, but what he does is better".

In all cultures until recent times, elders were revered. The elderly were recognized and respected, both in their own families and in society. Pope Francis has written that "in both family and social culture, the elderly are like the roots of the tree: they have all their history there, and the young are like the flowers and the fruit. If this sap does not come, if this "trickle" of roots does not come, they will never be able to bloom." To illustrate this idea quotation a verse by Francisco Luis Bernárdez: "What is flowering in the tree lives from what is buried in it". For M. Pieper, old age properly understood implies forgetting the 'no longer' to focus on the 'not yet'".

The Italian neurologist Rita Levi Montalcini was awarded the award Nobel Prize in Medicine at the age of 77 for the finding of the first growth factor of the nervous system. She subsequently published "The ace in the hole: the gifts reserved for old age". Disdaining the typical lamentations about old age, he explains that the human brain can continue to function perfectly at very advanced ages. The thesis of the book is that "in the game of life the ace is to know how to use one's mental and psychic activities, especially in the senile phase". He refused to retire on the grounds that people who do so tend to give up and become ill.

Robinson Cuadros, a geriatrician, states that old age is not synonymous with disease; he adds that the elderly are not useless, but they can end up being rendered useless by the overprotection that is often exercised over them.

We must learn to age intelligently, opting for "active aging". This concept was proposed by the WHO at the end of the 1990s to replace the total rest of "healthy aging". The same WHO defined it as "the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to improve the quality of life as people age". I personally share this definition, but I think that what is offered to the elderly is not enough; there is a lack of measures to free them from the social ostracism they often suffer. It is not enough to give them the means to live; they must also be given reasons to live.

Despite the WHO's proposal , traditional passive aging continues to predominate in some environments. It is often a consequence of having conceived retirement as a total rest that entails liberation from all subject duties. One retires from one's professional work , but not from life.

Every day we lose a little biological youth, but we can also grow in youthfulness of spirit. "Growing old is like climbing a great mountain: as one climbs, one's strength diminishes, but one's gaze is freer, one's vision broader and more serene" (Ingmar Bergman).

Growing old is just a matter of time, but knowing how to grow old is an art that entails detachment. It implies not accepting to be only the subject of needs. "Old age is a grace that must be reciprocated; the longer the road of our existence, the more it must take us away from ourselves. The wheel of days, while wearing out the body, must sharpen the soul" (Gustave Thibon).