Article by: Sarah Harper said there was a danger of neglecting what true old age should be.
Don't call people 'old' until death is near, says gerontologist
Sarah Harper, director of Oxford Institute of Ageing, suggests people in their 70s and 80s should
People should not be called old until they are seriously frail, dependent and approaching death, one of the UK’s leading social scientists has told Hay festival.
Sarah Harper, a gerontologist who is director of the Oxford Institute of Ageing, proposed a different approach to the language we use about ageing, suggesting that people in their 60s and possibly 70s and 80s should still be considered active adults.
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“We should not even be calling people old until they reach what [the historian Peter] Laslett calls the fourth age; that time where we will become frail and enfeebled,” Harper said. “Old age should be the fourth age. Everything else should be active adulthood.”
She said there was a danger of neglecting what true old age should be: a time of withdrawal and peace and reflection. It can be a difficult time but “it is a time we need to claim as a special time because we are finite beings … we will die”.
The question of what is old age – when are we truly old – arises because death is increasingly being pushed back. “We are talking about extending lives in a way we have never experienced before,” said Harper, who is also the new director of the Royal Institution.
ITs suggest that general life expectancy is rising by two and a half years per decade. In the 18th century, there were about 10 centenarians in the whole of Europe. Now there are 14,500 just in the UK. Predictions are that by the end of the 21st century there will be 1.5 million centenarians in the UK. Another prediction is that half of the babies being born now in the UK will live until they are 104. In Japan it is 107. “We are ageing dramatically and we are ageing without radical science,” said Harper.