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Ageing is often presented in a negative way. Ageing is a problem, a costly, scary and unpleasant one, including problems like end-of-life care, pension schemes, retirement age, Alzheimer’s disease and so on. We seem to forget that to become older is among the greater achievements, if not the greatest, a sustainable society can reach. I say sustainable because I make the assumption that a sustainable society displays a relatively stable number of individuals. Fertility rates higher than the societal replacement rate (2.1 children per woman) necessarily lead to an unsustainable demography.

A society is ageing as the result of two demographic processes: the decrease of fertility and mortality rates: people have less children and die at a more advanced age. If a population is stable (in numbers) and ageing, it can only mean that individuals are living longer. Years of life can be gained from decreasing infant mortality rates or from the delay of death at older ages.

Rorschach test or age pyramid

Almost every technological, societal and medical improvement developed in society eventually can be used for the delay of death. We should consider that, as long as a society is ageing,  it is on the path of progress and sustainability. The way I see it, the demographically oldest societies are also the most advanced. Naturally, there are indissociable issues such as quality of life, literacy rates among many others that are being included in indexes like the Human Development Index. I am merely exaggerating the importance of age to remind how great an achievement an old society is. It is a reminder to tell those who brandish ageing as the cause of societal problems that ageing is not the cause, it is the aim.

I am not claiming that the process of ageing is a quiet and easy road. Far from it! Like most social evolutions, it requires time, adaptation and efforts. Neither am I saying that we should seek longevity at all costs. Ageing of our societies imposes the evolution of our healthcare systems and implies rethinking our family organisations. It also pushes our social and political systems to adapt to the expectations of a whole new population. Peacefully and successfully completing the ageing process of our societies appears as an essential aspect of the so called sustainable development: in the same way we are aiming to increase our use of renewable energies, we need to perceive the completion of the ageing process as an essential objective on a global scale.

 

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Gerontology, i.e. the study of age and ageing is an unconventional topic to study as a university major despite it being academically and intellectually immensely stimulating. Undeterred by the numerous prejudices associated with the field, I decided to pursue an M.Sc, then a PhD in Gerontology. The main reason is life experience.

As most of us, I first encountered the issue of older age around my grandparents, and more precisely Marthe, my great grand mother. She sadly passed away in 2008, aged 103. At the time, I was in my third year of a political science degree. It was by looking back at her later years that I realised that I wanted to become a gerontologist.

Born in 1905, she lived through the twentieth century, married, worked as a secretary and had five children. Life went on and the village home once full of children became eventually quieter as Marthe and her daughter Jeanne, both widows, became the only residents left. As Marthe grew older and her health deteriorated, Jeanne progressively became her carer. This home was one of the few remaining pictures of the now almost completely disappeared 19th century family model, where generations and their births and deaths cohabitated.

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I keep a vivid memory of her last hours, especially the unusually dim lights of her home and the whispers of a family preparing itself for the inevitable moment. The nurse, on her way out said it was going to happen any time. Jeanne thanked the carer and closed the door. No drama, no tears. It was a moment of life dealt with in silence and prayer. In the morning, Jeanne hung a white sheet of paper at the door with the times of the day people could come to pay their last respect to my great grand mother; a ritual she had perpetrated each time death had visited her home. Little did I know how much this moment would mark the following years of my work.

Marthe’s end of life was mix of modernity and tradition. Modernity because she represented many of the challenges that our society faces right now. She lived to an impressive age and therefore lived life as a retired person for over 40 years and was very active in her later years. She was cared for by her daughter who was growing older herself, having reached 72 years. Tradition, because she is among the rather few who nowadays experienced death at home, alongside a rare family spirit, with over 40 great grand children that she saw regularly. She introduced me to the challenges and the beauty of these later years that are now feared and hidden when they should be respected, if not embraced and cherished.

I became a gerontologist because unlike Marthe, a lot of people don’t get the end of life care that they deserve and I would to participate in the silver-friendly evolution of our societies. I became a gerontologist because I feel we know too little about what is happening and how we can deal with it. I became a gerontologist because I want to see our societies as inclusive of all age groups, no matter what their age, physical and mental capacities are, with the hope that in the future, people can serenely grow older.

Thanks to Nicole Batsch for proofreading this post

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