[Viewpoint] Redefining the elderly

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[Viewpoint] Redefining the elderly

“On what grounds are you calling people over the age of 65 ‘elderly?’?” This question shook my long-held stereotype.

There are actually no grounds. We customarily treat people over the age of 60 as elderly, and Korean society has labeled life after 60 as the life of a retiree. So, I just thought when someone reaches that age, it means he or she is an elderly person.

After asking me the question, Professor Park Sang-chul of Gachon University, an expert in the field of aging studies, continued. “Research outcomes from the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology showed that the mental status of 70-year-olds in 1977 was similar to that of 87-year-olds in 2007,” Park said. “Although Korea has no longitudinal study similar to that, my clinical experiences show that the mental health of a 65-year-old today is probably similar to that of a 50-year-old in the past. They are, in fact, in the prime of their lives. From the perspective of aging studies, ‘elderly’ is above 75 years old today.”

In fact, the average lifespan in Korea increased from 52 in 1960 to 79.1 in 2008. Starting in 2020, we will have the “100-year-olds era” during which most of the deaths in the country will occur among people in their 90s. But the prospect of an aging society is dark.

The burden for the medical expenses and living assistance for the elderly will increase, while labor productivity and vitality are expected to drop. It is gloomy to think about a society full of the elderly who have to live lonely lives with illnesses without jobs.

But more and more research outcomes overturn these dark forecasts. There was a report that the increased rate of healthy elderly people is higher than the increased rate of disabled elderly people as the aging progresses. After decades of observation, the National Institute on Aging in the United States also discovered that the age-specific morbidity rate for diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure actually decreased as the aging society progressed, and the rate actually jumped just before deaths. It is a finding that the forecast of high medical expenses for an aging society could be groundless.

The gloomy outlook on an aging society could probably be a misunderstanding stemming from our social conventions. Today, humankind is evolving into a new society compared to the past, but we are still caught up in the stereotype that being elderly starts when you hit the age of 60.

Based on the misunderstanding, preparations for an aging society are often focused on the welfare policy and measures to pay for life as a retiree. The society planned to support people in their 60s, who are actually in the prime of their lives, while the individuals are having trouble making plans to pay for the rest of their lives, which could be 30 or 40 years, with the savings from their past two or three decades.

On the other hand, the government and the business community are concerned about the decrease in the workforce and looking at immigration policies to bring in foreign laborers. Meanwhile, the jobs for the elderly were planned for lesser productive activities such as volunteer works and small pastime tasks.

It is, however, hard to find someone from the people in their 60s and 70s who cannot work because they are too old.

Jang Yeong-gwon, a 60-year-old former worker of the Hyundai Heavy Industries, recently retired from the firm but renewed his contract on a yearly basis. “I am still driving a 150-ton trailer, but I have never thought that the job went beyond my power,” Jang said. “And many of my fellow employees are still working for other affiliates and they are over 70 years old.”

Jang said his current income is about 65 percent of what he used to earn. “But I have raised all my kids, so my life is much more affluent now,” he said. “I thought I would feel depressed when I got old, but now is the happiest time of my life.”

And the reason for his happiness is because he has a job.

Today, the clock of mankind is changing from the past. We used to work about 30 years and then live life as a retiree. But today, we can work another 20 or even 30 years more after working for three decades. It is not an aging society, but a society of longevity. This is a new world because we live twice as long as we used to. Therefore, we need a completely new approach and strategy for aging.

Low birth rates is one of the most serious problems today, and it is necessary to change our thinking and find the solution to the decrease in the workforce by utilizing the elderly.

We need to escape from the stereotypical view that the elderly are the elders that we must protect. We have to come up with a completely new way to live two sets of lives well. Aging is not a punishment, but without an efficient plan for the second half of life, a society of longevity could be a disaster.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Yang Sun-hee
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