(This article by Age in Spain Director, Helen Weir, originally appeared in the June/July edition of Baywatch Magazine)
Something we at Age in Spain are continually asking ourselves is “How old is old?” We need to know because it informs what we should say and who we need to reach with our information and it also defines just what help our Support Service offers and to whom. “Does “old” mean only those who are infirm or vulnerable?” “Should we focus more on helping younger people (perhaps those in middle age) plan for their later lives?” “Has our shared experience of the Covid pandemic fundamentally changed the way people interact with organisations like Age in Spain?” These are just some of the questions we have been grappling with in recent weeks as we plan for the future of Age in Spain, particularly once the disturbance of Brexit has settled down at some point in the future (although our work supporting UK nationals with the residency process suggests that future is still some time off). Of course, for a charity like us, defining your audience and how you meet their needs is also fundamental to how we get funding, from whom and for what? So you can see it´s important to us as an organisation.
However, I think a lot of us also ask ourselves these questions at a personal level as our perspective on age inevitably changes with the passing years. When we were children anyone who was an adult was already old and our grandparents´ generation were very old. Back then old people also did things differently, they dressed like old people and they did old people things. They certainly didn´t listen to rock and roll or pop music but now pensioners regularly attend music festivals. Now, Mick Jagger is 77, Pete Townsend is 75 and even Johnny Rotten is 65. Now things are different. Now 60 is not old. Is it? It can´t be.
There are, of course, serious reasons why people´s understanding of age has changed. On the positive side, for those in developed countries, we are generally better off and have access to good food and excellent healthcare. This means many more of us live longer, healthier lives and we get old later. At the same time, there have also been changes that are not quite so positive. In most countries the retirement age is creeping upwards, pensions are worth less in real terms and many people find themselves needing to work during their supposed retirement to maintain a decent standard of living.
So, the reality of ageing has changed and so has the language we use to describe it. Rather than describe a person or a group of people as “old” we are more likely to say “older”, “senior”, ”elderly” or “in their third age”. Do well-intentioned euphemisms betray the fact that we are often uncomfortable talking about age and the changes it brings or do they reflect real changes in attitudes to the way we think about later life? It´s probably a mix of the two.
One thing is certain. The experience of ageing changes from country to country and the reason why so many people from across the world choose to make Spain their home in later life is that this is surely one of the best places in the world to be old…or older…or whatever term you prefer. Of course, for those who have made their homes in the south or on the Costas, climate has a big part to play but I think it goes beyond that. From the biggest Spanish cities to the smallest pueblos, older people are always out there visibly enjoying themselves. They talk loudly in plazas and bars, they are up late at night laughing and drinking, they are central to the fabric of Spanish life in a way that is just not as true in many other countries. So, while the experience of Covid has been particularly hard for older people, in Spain as everywhere, let´s also celebrate what a fantastic country Spain is to grow old in – gracefully, disgracefully, however you choose to do it.