Plan to live to 90-plus? Better have a strategy

Redefining the way you live, treating it like a marathon and having a strategy in place are now necessities due to the longevity revolution, according to an international expert on ageing.

The baby boomers are also likely to challenge all the assumptions about ageing as they enter the last third of their lives, says Alex Kalache, co-president of the International Longevity Centre in Brazil.

The traditional stages of childhood, career and retirement may have been valid last century but they need reworking, he says.

Alex Kalache smiles, beach backdrop

This is partly because many people are living so much longer.

“Until this century, most people would be lucky if they would survive to the age of 60 or 70,” says Dr Kalache.

“Now what we are seeing is that a very large proportion of individuals live until they’re 90 or longer. This is a revolution.

“When I was born, life expectancy in Brazil was only 43, today it’s 76 so it shows that even in developing countries, we are seeing a much longer lifespan.”

The ageing expert compares it to a race.

“Life has become much more like a marathon than a 100 metre sprint.

“If you know that you have to live only 50 or 60 years, you can put all the energy and gas to get to the end but if you are going to live to 90 or longer, you need to face life as if it would be a marathon.

“You need a strategy, you need to invest so that you know you are going to get to very old age with quality of life.”

Not only are many people living longer, they are also expecting those later years to be fulfilling and meaningful.

Capital investment

Dr Kalache says active ageing is all about investing in four capitals.

The first and foremost is health.

“You have to adopt a lifelong approach, it’s a process of optimising opportunities for health,” he says.

“You have more life and you have to fill those years with quality and the impact of a longer life has to be felt throughout the life course.”

There’s also education capital.

“Think about your knowledge capital because with the much longer life, and an era with a tremendous explosion of knowledge, you have to acquire new knowledge, new skills, otherwise you’re going to be redundant very early in your life.”

Being committed to lifelong learning doesn’t apply only to professionals.

“If you take for instance, a car mechanic; 20 years ago, all that person would need to know was mechanics. Now, he would need to learn electronics as well as mechanics, and if he has not learned electronics, he will lose his job,” says Dr Kalache.

A third plank to the strategy is social capital.

“You need to have your friends, your family,” he says.

“As you grow older, the risks of losing your independence might increase. You’ll need that social capital - your family, your friends, neighbours that may provide care when you most need it.”

The fourth capital is financial because to age well, you will have to have savings or investments that can make life easier when you need it most.

Age friendly initiative

Dr Kalache developed the active ageing philosophy and age-friendly communities while at the World Health Organisation.

“The idea was to specifically influence the policies so that we could influence the way people live.”

Baby boomers are expected to shake up the way older age is viewed as the generation who were the protesters, the anti-war activists, the ones used to making change happen, hit 65-plus.

WHO's global age-friendly cities guide

“It is very large and influential,” says the ageing expert.

“They have been used throughout their lives to have the highest health expectancy.

“They have benefited from medical technology such as vaccines and antibiotics and all the miracles of modern medical technology, not only in terms of drugs but surgery and treatment.”

Dr Kalache says the baby boomers invented adolescence and will go on to create ‘gerontolescence’.

“Before the 2nd world war, the transition from childhood into adulthood was very abrupt because at the age of 12 or 14, you were no longer in formal education, even in developed areas, and you would need to work in order to eat.”

It was different after the war.

“There was an economic boom post-war so we had better health, more education, some money in the pocket to spend and [we had] very large numbers, therefore influential,” he says.

“So we created this stage of life that spanned for four or five/six years and it was a time to experiment, to rebel, to turn the table.

“We were the first generation to create this social construct we call adolescence today.”

Dr Kalache says the baby boomers will age in a very different way to previous generations.

“If you look at most of the movements in the 60s and the anti-war movement, many social qualities that united the youth in the 60s and early 70s, it’s that generation, the baby boomers, that is now entering old age.

“Obviously, we are not going to age the same way as our parents and grandparents.

“We are going to be coherent with our lives – we are going to rebel, to turn the table, experiment and we are creating a new social construct; from adulthood into old age that I call ‘gerontolescence’.

“We are creating a new social contract of what it means to age.”