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The role of the elderly in an aging society

a guest contribution by Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Ursula Lehr

Loss of the role of "old age" in our society
In young societies, in which older people are rare, they are particularly honored and respected. In earlier times judicial, teaching and healing functions were ascribed to the elderly. They enjoyed a very special respect as advisors, as transmitters of traditions, as experienced people.
 
This is no longer the case in our time. The functions of storing, retaining and remembering as well as the transfer of knowledge and information are nowadays largely replaced by modern technologies.

Old age in an aging society like ours is characterized by a loss of role. “The old person is no longer needed” is a widespread attitude today, but it ignores reality. What would our society do without "the old"? It is important to recognize and use the strengths of old age.

There are not too many old people in Germany, but too few young people
The demographic change, the headstand of the population pyramid has come about not only because of more old people, but also because of fewer young people. It should be made clear to those who speak of an “aging” in our society that we are suffering from “rejuvenation”. We don't have too many old people, we don't have enough young people.

We are getting older than generations before us, but we are also healthier and more competent than our parents and grandparents of the same age - if they had reached this at all. But today you are counted among the youth for longer and if you are assigned to senior citizens earlier, you are made "old" earlier!

This extension of the youth and the bringing forward of the senior age despite better health and existing skills lead to a shortening of the actual active middle adult age.

We have the oldest students and the youngest retirees. We assign people up to 35 to the youth groups, count them from 45 to the "older workers", give them no more job opportunities from 50 and move them from "55 plus" to senior citizens. We cut the actual, active middle adult age on both sides and let it shrink to 15 to 20 years. Despite scientific findings to the contrary, the older employee (and this group includes people from the age of 45!) Is classified as reduced performance.

Aging can be beneficial in many areas
According to the results of German and international research, this negative image of old age cannot be justified. A general deficit model of aging needs to be questioned. Aging does not have to mean degradation and loss, but can be downright profit in many areas, an increase in skills and potential, and thus an opportunity - for individuals and society.

The latent, but demonstrably existing potential of old age needs both an initiative supported by the individual and a socially and culturally organized benefit in order to manifest itself: the individual should be clear about his personal interests and goals and strive to achieve them; But there is also a need for social offers that motivate older people to work with them, to get involved.
 
The vast majority of older people are willing and able to take responsibility for themselves, to find meaning in their own life story, to contribute to healthy and competent aging - but also to accept their own lived life and their own finiteness. That is one aspect of the maturity of old age.
 
Most older people, however, are also prepared to take on responsibility towards their families, towards other people and towards society. You are ready to be productive in the sense of working for others, be it in the context of civic engagement, as a voluntary activity, be it as a bridging function to future generations or also as a commitment to the elderly parents who are still alive. Around 35% of the caring relatives are themselves 65 years of age or older!

Old and young have to take responsibility together
But we shouldn't stir up the generation conflict any further. Only together can we master the challenges of the future. Younger, medieval and elderly people have to be givers and takers at the same time. We should no longer ask “Is old age still to be paid?” Or “Is today's demanding youth still to be paid?”, But we should take responsibility for ourselves and society together. We need the dialogue between the generations and not a power and distribution struggle. We need joint action, not mutual reproaches and insults; we need mutual understanding. We need the opportunity for the young to learn from the old, but also for the old to learn from the young.

Older people are an important economic factor
Almost every day you read in the newspaper about “old age burden”, “pension burden”, “care burden”. Older people are only seen as load quotas and - in the language of insurance - as a "longevity risk". Why are we only discussing the costs of the elderly and not the benefits? Why do you not see the elderly as consumers, as profits, as value creators?

Pensioners are an economic factor - and not only with regard to customers, visual aids, hearing aids, stair lifts, walking aids, etc. Many travel companies could close if the seniors didn't exist - and some seniors would be quite willing to spend more if the appropriate offer was there would.

Older people are not to be seen one-sidedly as an "economic burden" because:

1. In particular, very many older people have both assets and a positive savings rate, so they build assets and thus participate in the process of value creation.

2. Work that is not carried out as gainful employment (childcare, care, volunteering) is also an economic activity that should not be underestimated

3. The elderly are a strong consumer group.

4. Older people are also taxpayers and thus contribute to a not inconsiderable degree in the financing of government spending.

Financial transfers within families mainly go from the older to the younger.

We don't need politics for older people, but politics with and by older people
Our country is facing major challenges - not just because of demographic change, but also because of the economic, political and social situation. We all have to help our country recover. Seniors are willing to make sacrifices, to accept limitations, but these must be fair and meaningful. Seniors demand planning security on the one hand - and intergenerational equity on the other. But when we talk about “intergenerational equity”, we should not only consider the financial burden but also other aspects such as educational opportunities, working life and responsibility for the family and society, both in the past and today.

A future-oriented policy must be a policy not only for, but with and partly also by old people. One day it has to understand older people as a significant target group for political action. After all, 24% of the population today are senior citizens, and in 2030 it will be 35%. Our society is anything but age-friendly; she has still not realized that today there are only 12.4 people younger than 75 who are over 75! In 1890 there were 79 younger people for every 75-year-old, in 2040 there will be only 6.2 and in 2050 there will only be 5.5 people younger than 75 for every 75-year-old. In a “society of long life”, politics has a far greater role to play in shaping the environment than before, in order to guarantee an independent lifestyle for as long as possible.

A future-oriented policy must also take more care of the disabled and those in need of care, make the principle of “rehabilitation before care” a reality and promote prevention more. They have to realize that family care has its limits in the future and that an expansion of outpatient care as well as institutional care (in the most diverse forms of living) will be necessary - and that with high quality.

Each of us, at all ages, has a responsibility for himself, his family and society. The following applies to young and old in our times of change:

“Never start to stop
and never stop starting! "


Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Ursula Lehr was Federal Minister for Youth, Family, Women and Health from 1988 to 1991 and is the founding director of the German Center for Aging Research (DZFA) at Heidelberg University.