Active brain combats gloom

November 28, 1997

People who live longer do not have to fear a decrepit old age if they just keep active, say scientists

PETER Coleman is an ardent supporter of lifelong learning, but his view of it is broader than most. As professor of psychogerontology at Southampton University, he sees lifelong learning as a means of older people continuing to fulfil their potential when society expects little but deterioration.

"Cultural attitudes are so deeply set. Look at ageist birthday cards," he said. "This needs to be vigorously combated, not in an unrealistic way, because there is biological deterioration. But that doesn't preclude the continuing development of experience and skills."

As more people live longer, the onus is on society to create a "positive culture" of age, Professor Coleman said.

"We need to show much more interest in the long life people have led, and the varied things they've done. Older people often say they wish they could be seen in terms of their whole life story and not just as a needy elderly person."

Professor Coleman has been heading a 20-year study of people over 65, funded since 1990 by the Economic and Social Research Council. He now hopes to embark on an investigation of the link between people's attitudes to old age and frailty and what happens to them as they age. Evidence so far suggests that those who consider old age a burden, or are very afraid of dependency, are more likely to become depressed.

He said: "We have to influence people's attitudes earlier in life and make them think more purposefully and constructively about living a longer life, and all the things they can do even if they do lose some of their abilities.

The education options are "endless and they could also play a valuable role in politics", said Professor Coleman. "They have the wisdom and life experience to be very successfully involved in monitoring what is happening in government," he suggested.

His research shows that people whose health has deteriorated over time cope more easily in old age than those who have a more rapid downturn.

"I think we make a mistake in assuming that in advanced age it's easier for someone to adapt to chronic illness. It can be more difficult, because the person has had a longer span of leading an active life. In some ways, older people's lives are too stable, and maybe their ways of coping have become too rigid when they are hit by a problem."

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