Mirror, mirror... Old people who live like young people are often ridiculed. That’s a mistake, because how people see themselves is more than just an illusion

The bestselling author Hajo Schumacher would like people to adopt a new attitude toward life

The Urge to Act

Certain things are needed to make aging a pleasant experience—financial security, social relationships, spirituality, and mental health. Still, none of these things can make seniors happy if they have doubts about themselves. If they look at the world positively, the world does in fact get better

We are living against the rules of nature. After all, propping up the useless half of a population has never been a part of evolution. A person’s uselessness begins when his or her children are able to support themselves. After that you’re deadwood and not worth repairing if you break down. An animal with hip joint problems will not survive for long. Our surgeons, on the other hand, are now testing procedures for replacing worn-out artificial hip joints after 20 years.

This is how we fool nature—and also stumble into unknown territory, in nearly all affluent post-industrial societies. I was born in 1964, along with 1.35 million other Germans. This was the year with the highest birthrate in Germany. When we baby boomers begin retiring around 2030, the social security system will start to creak under our weight. There’ll be too many old people and not enough children—so who’s going to pay for everything? This is a new and scary situation in the history of humankind.

The first thing we need to do is to abandon our deeply rooted, age-old Calvinist belief that human existence after one’s working life is mainly a cost issue. An intense debate is currently under way in France about “successful aging,” and Scandinavian societies are very accepting of senior citizens, even those with physical disabilities. One can learn to age well if one gets rid of the toxic stereotype of deterioration.

Hajo Schumacher

is co-manager of the Berlin office of Der Spiegel magazine and editor-in-chief of the lifestyle magazine Max. He also hosts TV talk shows and has written numerous books (some under the pen name Achim Achilles). The subtitle of his book Restlaufzeit (“The Time Remaining,” published in German by Eichborn-Verlag) is “How to enjoy a good, fun, and affordable life in old age”.

“Loneliness is a brutal killer. Community saves lives”

Bicycle paths and cultural festivals

Has Mick Jagger ever asked himself whether he should be jumping around a stage in his mid-70s? No, he just does it. It’s not society that assigns the elderly the role they currently play; they do that themselves by acting as if they’re somehow diminished, by failing to adapt, and by continually apologizing for the fact that they exist. Seniors are like volcanoes: Some are extinct, some are dormant, and some are very active.

The Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has impressively demonstrated just how powerful an optimistic attitude can be. Her experiment involved inverting the vision tests everyone hates so much. In Langer’s test, the small letters were on top, so it got easier and easier to read the letters as you moved toward the bottom. As it turned out, the senior citizen test subjects identified the letters much more accurately than before. In other words, their vision got better because they had more self-confidence—the likelihood of correctly identifying a letter rose with each line read. “Hedonistic adaptation” is how scientists refer to the human talent for regaining a more or less normal mood after suffering a setback. Researchers at the German Center of Gerontology.

Researchers at the German Center of Gerontology are now studying how seniors “can change their negative attitudes,” as the psychology professor Clemens Tesch-Römer puts it. Finally somebody’s come out and said it: The image all of us have of retirees is disastrous. “Age needs to be detoxified,” Frank Schirrmacher, the late publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, wrote in his bestseller Das Methusalem-Komplott (The Methuselah Conspiracy).

The views of gerontologists can help with this “detoxification.” Gerontologists distinguish between the “third” and “fourth” ages. In the third age, the mind and body still function well enough to allow a person to ride a bike, go hiking, and attend cultural festivals. The fourth age begins at the point — usually around age 80 — at which a person becomes increasingly frail and often requires assistance.

Rights and obligations in all phases of life

However, even this advanced age does not necessarily have to end in mass caregiving, as many examples in my book Restlaufzeit (The Time Remaining) illustrate. The simple fact is that loneliness is a brutal killer and companionship saves lives. The former television reporter Sven Kuntze, who evaluated several nursing homes from the inside as a resident, has the following to say on this subject: “The future belongs to the community, regardless of its size or type—communities where people lead independent lives and get help when they need it.”

The time has also come to get the “young elderly” to do their part. The third age should not be a permanent vacation paid for by society for people with a grumpy attitude that it is somehow their right. Instead, older individuals must take on more responsibility for themselves and others. The great journalist and author Peter Scholl-Latour once said dryly, “I work every day. If I had retired at 65, I would be long dead by now—and if not dead then dumb.”

Only around 15 percent of the working population is actually “burned out” by the age of 65. Most of the rest often abound with energy. Is it unreasonable to expect these fit elderly individuals to take on a few responsibilities—for example, keeping themselves more or less in shape physically, mentally, and spiritually?
doesn’t a society that pays out pensions for decades have a right to expect some cooperation? Calm and experienced people are needed everywhere—in libraries, parks, schools, daycare centers, local government—and as caregivers for the elderly as well. Ten hours of community work perweek—is that too much to ask from a 70-year-old? No, as such work can lend life new meaning. In their new roles, elderly individuals can act as purveyors of wisdom, as mediators, or as guardians of tradition, history, and great stories. Moreover, when life has meaning there’s no room for boredom, loneliness, and desperation.

Alexander Künzel, Chairman of the Bremer Heimstiftung nursing home foundation, sums up the situation clearly: “Soon there will not only be more older people but also far fewer people in the workforce. Basically, we will run out of caregivers. More people will have to volunteer in the future, and I’m banking on our robust retirees. We offer courses in evening school that provide tips on how to get involved in the community in Bremen. The elderly are breaking down the doors for these courses. The potential is huge.”

Everyone would benefit: There would be less loneliness, and the great gap between the idle and those who work would be bridged. There would be more appreciation and a better social climate. Is this utopian? Let’s be serious: The principle that people should be both supported and challenged applies in every phase of life.

It sounds paradoxical but it’s nevertheless true that greater respect for the elderly can only be attained if we
start talking not only about rights but also about obligations. Aging must be viewed as a potential service to
the community, which definitely needs strengthening in many ways. Those who want to be taken seriously
should also take themselves seriously. We tell our children to get out of their comfort zones, and it’s not
too much to ask that we do the same. Like youth, the third age is both a learning and an experimental phase.
Enough energy, creativity, and knowledge are available.

There’s no question that a lot of issues need to be tackled and we are moving into uncharted waters. However, only after we learn to appreciate ourselves when we get old will we get the respect we deserve from the younger generations. Once liberated from the pressures of a career, children, and the time clock, there’s plenty of room for more meaning in life than just television, shopping, and complaining. A little less money could help with this transformation of our view of old age.

There’s too much talk about money in a debate that focuses on crumbs in the form of percentage points rather than on the major issues of meaning and dignity. Our language, our willingness to learn, our attitude, and our cooperation are like additional pensions and medications whose value is underestimated. A kind word or a positive experience have the power to reignite our entire neural system—for better or for worse. Progress, healing, and growth are possible at all levels and at all times.

Making the best of the time remaining

A long-term study conducted at University College London has shown that physical deterioration slows down
in happy senior citizens. However, “happiness” means a lot more than the material security that the timid Germans in particular misinterpret as the mark of a satisfying life. For example, some sprightly 90-year-olds are in better form than gloomy people in their late 60s—not because the 90-year-old has better genes or a bigger pension but instead because he or she has a more healthy attitude toward life.

In other words, we ourselves have to take responsibility for our health, our brains, our social contacts, our finances, our awareness, and our spirit. The rule of thumb here is that our overall feeling of well-being will
only be as positive as the weakest of these factors. Those who have a lot of money but see no meaning in life will not age successfully. However, those who have a share of everything have a good chance of leading a fulfilling life in the time remaining to them.

Hajo Schumacher

is co-manager of the Berlin office of Der Spiegel magazine and editor-in-chief of the lifestyle magazine Max. He also hosts TV talk shows and has written numerous books (some under the pen name Achim Achilles). The subtitle of his book Restlaufzeit (“The Time Remaining,” published in German by Eichborn-Verlag) is “How to enjoy a good, fun, and affordable life in old age”.

“Loneliness is a brutal killer. Community saves lives”