Longevity – Reality and Perceptions of a Longer Life

By on November 11, 2011

By Peter Kruger –

A child visits a fairground and spends their pocket money on a carousel ride. They are told from the outset that the carousel would go around seventy times and then the ride would be over. When the child thought seventy circuits had been completed the child started to climb down from the horse they were riding when the operator called out. “Not yet, you’ve got at least another ten laps.”

OK so that is a very clunky parable about longevity. Today we, in the boomer generation, expect to live longer than our parents, who themselves lived longer than our grandparents. However, before we take the carousel analogy any further let us take a look at the issue of longevity itself.

You will often hear researchers say that average life expectancy has risen radically over the last one hundred years. The important word to take note of here is ‘average.’ While during the last one hundred years ‘average’ female life expectancy has risen from fifty four to eighty two years there were eighty two year olds around in 1911. The reason ‘average life expectancy’ was so low was due to the high incidence of deaths during childbirth – both of mother and child – and a high infant mortality rate. Reducing both of these saw a radical rise in life expectancy. A second increase came with the introduction of modern medicines, such as Penicillin and the absence of pandemics such as the influenza outbreak in 1918.

For our parents individual life expectancy was much the same as it was for their parents except more people actually made it all the way to the end. For us in the boomer generation there is an extra bonus. We have gained a few more years due to the introduction of automation in the workplace and a shift away from an economy based on manufacturing to one based of services. This, coupled with a decline in the number of people who smoke, has seen another rise in the number of people who live well into old age.

So perhaps our young child on the carousel had actually miscounted. She had expected the ride to end ten circuits before it was due to finish. The common misconception regarding longevity is that we have been given, due to the miracles of modern medicine, an extra decade tagged onto the end of our life. In reality you are actually living those extra years right now. When you look in the mirror and wonder why you are seeing a forty five year old person looking back it is down to your own perception of ageing, which is what we will look at next.

Imagine you are back in the 1960s you have come home with your partner and, as you step into the living room; there is your father, dressed as a teenager and playing a guitar. If it had been your grandfather it would have been comical but, as it was your father, it was toe curlingly, cringingly embarrassing – so embarrassing you would have split with your partner because they would always remind you of what happened on that dreadful evening. Now roll forward fifty years, you have just paid out $400 a ticket for a Rolling Stones concert. You are at the stadium staring up at the massive screen above the stage. Then the camera zooms in on the guitarist Keith Richards. Remind you of anyone? Older than your father was in the 1960s – in fact about the same age as you grandfather was when you were a teenager – you still look on this ageing rockstar with the same sense of awe you did when you first saw him play at Syracuse, New York in 1964.

Being a member of the baby boom generation carries certain privileges. One of these is that we are immune from aging – or at least our perception of it is minimal. While many of us, in the words of Leonard Cohen, are beginning to ache in the places where we used to play we have all aged together and, being part of such a large group, have only each other to compare ourselves with. This has important implications for our health and well-being as while we perceive ourselves as being young we will also feel young.

It is easy to dismiss the psychosomatic aspect of health but, as Darian Leader and David Corfield, highlighted in their book ‘Why do People Get Ill?’ many medical conditions are as much a state of mind as a physical condition. Our expectation of how our body should be at a certain age can influence our state of health. So when companies start targeting us as customers for anti ageing products they are merely addressing an issue that is just skin deep (pardon the pun). Another group of companies that are often wrong footed by our generation’s perception of age, and our retained vigour, are those that regard ageing and poor health as synonymous and try to sell us all manor of healthcare devices. You are more likely to find us boomers on a ski lift than a stair lift.

Here I am going to skip a whole aspect of our extra ten years – economics – as it is a topic in its own right. How to fund those bonus years is a pressing issue – one that is perplexing governments and pension fund trustees alike. No doubt this problem will eventually be resolved, probably on the other side of the current economic crisis. We could see what constitutes work and economic activity turned on its head. But, as I said, that is for another person on another day.

For now we will return to the world of popular culture as this provides another example of how influential we boomers have become.  Our grandparents were entertained by vaudeville singers, such a Sophie Tucker, and our parents by swing bands such as Glenn Miller. We, however, grew up with rock bands such as the Beach Boys, Beatles and Steely Dan. The format of these acts was radical different; our grandparents saw a lone singer stood on a stage, our parents a 15 piece dance band and we a drummer and three or four guitarists. Go to a pop concert today and the line up on the stage is much the same as it was in the sixties; guitarists and a drummer. It is as if we, the boomers, have frozen popular culture in time.

Look around and you will see the younger generation trying to conform to an image we have created – just as older generations bought into the youth culture we created in the 1960s. This effects all sectors of the economy; transport, retail and leisure – all designed for us and largely unchanged for half a century.

However there is one area where we are not all powerful and one group of people we have been unable to mould into our own image – our parents. Family relationships are one aspect of our lives that is often far from simply for us boomers. The relationship between a our parents and ourselves were always fraught – even if they did not dress up in our brother’s clothes and try to act like our guitar heroes. In retirement they seemed, to us at least, unprepared for longevity: they retired early and seemed to have spent their time just going around and around on the carousel.

Our relationship with our parents differs from the relationship they themselves had with their own parents in two respects. Firstly, advances in medical science has actually added a few years to the life of a person who twenty years ago would have died from one of any number of age related conditions. Unfortunately despite being given a few more laps on the carousel our parents often spend this time inactive and requiring a large amount of support from us, especially if you are their daughter.

Secondly families have become smaller. When our parents were caring for our grandparents they had the support from a larger pool of siblings – we are often left to support our parents, and in some cases our in-laws, on our own.

Both these factors combine with two other aspects of our relationship with our parents to radically alter our own perception of ageing and, in some cases, to distort our self-image.

Parents always have expected something of us they were not always willing to give. They see us as an extension of their own ego. We can have the same attitude towards our own children. It is only natural to see in our offspring tools we can use to achieve goals that are no longer within our reach. Conversely we have always looked to our parents for support. When our parents become frail both these factors combine to make our relationship with them fraught. We look to them for support they are no longer able to give – and they now see us as the only way to achieve what they want from their own lives. This is why it is suggested in some quarters that we are not complete as a person until both our parents have passed on.

Lacking a large number of siblings to share the pressure from our parents a high level of stress is common in the boomer generation’s interfamily relationships. We alone are often the sole extension to our parent’s ego.

Added to all these potential pressure points is the fact that our parent’s frailty acts as a constant reminder of our own mortality. We would like to get on with our lives without having to think, ‘In twenty years time that will be me.” each time we meet our parents.

While this description of our family life sounds dire and negates all the benefits of being a member of the boomer generation there is, in many cases, a solution. Not one that involves rejecting or neglecting our parents but a simple modification to how they fit within the matrix of our family relationships. During research into the usability of a mobile service called Alphadaughters, which is aimed at women in the fifty plus age group, we noticed that some people coped with supporting their parents far better than others. In each case those who coped had moved their parents into the same emotional slot occupied by their own children. They had standardised the way they related to all members of their immediate and extended family – providing emotional support for all members but not seeking for themselves from their elderly parents. They saw their family as an extension of their own ego rather than being an appendage to their parents. This created a far more harmonious relationship and an enlarged space within which the  ‘Alphadaughter’ could live their life.

Building tools into mobile services that assists this normalising of relationships is a challenge but in the 1980s I worked on similar systems that helped boomers modify their perception of themselves. Also, to some extent, today’s social networks are already helping us do this. So enjoy the ride!

 

 

For further information visit www.steinkrug.com

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Longevity – Reality and Perceptions of a Longer Life