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I am currently reading a book on ‘Productive Aging’ (it is an American book, hence the spelling) recommended by one of my examiners. It was published in 2001, a decade ago, but it is still apparently a recommended text. Once again I find myself concerned that it is written by younger people with apparently no input from older people themselves, which seems to give it an air of  inaccuracy.

Whilst reading it I found myself daydreaming about a year I spent on a country estate with my family at about the age of 8. The house we lived in previously had a field at the bottom of the garden so the change really wasn’t the huge change it could have been if we had moved from the city. I loved the life, particularly as our house, and those of the other people working on the estate, were adjacent to the farm which supported the  estate community. I enjoyed the farm life and got involved as much as I could. One of my favourite jobs was helping to round-up the cows for milking. Another was in the school holidays when all the children went out with the workers who were hay making. On the way home the four children were hoisted up to ride on the back of a beautiful Clydesdale horse. These horses were huge and immensely powerful but incredibly gentle with their precious cargo of children.

Reading about the need for ‘Productive Aging’  seemed to have parallels with steering  the herd of cows towards the milking shed each day. The whole concept of ‘Productive Ageing’ seems to be to steer older people like a herd towards doing something profitable. There is much discussion about the meaning of  ‘productive’, whether it should be restricted to paid work or work which has a financial value if it had to be done by a paid worker, such as the carer role. Intellectual pursuits would not be included in this definition. This suggested role for older people has a parallel with the cows who are not considered  to have any thoughts, ideas and desires.

The book was written before brain plasticity was widely accepted which may be an explanation, but is not an excuse, for treating older people as ‘them’, with no input into what is written about them, including the type of lifestyles being advocated for them. This is part of the current environment in which older people are treated as second class citizens in which their lifestyles can be dictated for them. Society used to take the same approach to people of a different colour and women (bedroom and kitchen roles) before we discovered that those tagged with these labels are actually people. These groups also have the different talents, abilities, interests etc that the rest of society has. Those advocating ‘Productive Aging’ seem to be insisting on a life of  ‘more of the same’ and recommending that this be facilitated by society. They argue that people should stay at work, presumably in the same jobs as they did before, completely ignoring those who hate their work and can’t wait to retire to get out of it. I suspect that in Australia most of those who enjoy their work try to avoid the retirement option.

What I am advocating is that we regard the later stage of life as an opportunity to either continue to follow the pursuits we already had in our working lives if we wish, or if we are not enjoying these (which many people do not seem to do) then use this as an opportunity to follow unfulfilled ambitions or discover new ones. If we look at all the new inventions, ideas and other changes, particularly in the field of health, that have taken place in the last fifty years we need to remember then it is the current group of older people who achieved this. We shouldn’t just be put out to pasture or herded into the milking sheds to produce what society designates us to do. Mankind found itself firstly in an agricultural age, then an industrial age and then the current information age for which today’s ageing are largely responsible. Where is society heading next and who will be responsible for its direction? For the first time in history we have a large number of ‘elders’ whose knowledge and experience should be used to help direct the future of society, rather than just stumbling into it as we have done in the past.

Older people have so much to offer, in terms of knowledge and experience; if we can couple this with  brain plasticity which now recognises that our brains can still learn new ideas, and reapply old ones, throughout life, then the later years should be seen as a time of opportunity, and new ideas, not of being propelled towards the milking sheds with our udders rolling from side to side!