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New rhythm for senior citizens

Nowadays, when people live longer, a study alerts about the importance of physical activity in elderly people's self esteem

White hair is beginning to appear on Brazilian brows. According to the thesis Being Elderly in the World: the Individual and Living with Physical Activity as a Means of Affirmation and Social Identity, presented at the Psychology School of the University of São Paulo (USP), in 2025, 15% of the country’s population (34 million people) will be older than 60. During this period the number of old people will increase by an average of 6.5% a year and, at the same time, the absolute number of youngsters up to 14 years of age will fall. “As society ages, Brazilians will live more with old people, enabling mature generations to have a paradigm of what it is to be old”, observes Andréa Krüger Gonçalves, author of the thesis.

“Old people today have to create parameters, because they had no reference point. In addition, with technological progress, people are increasingly living longer”, she goes on. The theme of the thesis, supported by FAPESP, is precisely to offer some clues as to how to relate better to this increasingly long stage of life. The researcher thinks the solution lies in physical activity. “I believe that there is nothing better than movement for combating the inertia into which elderly people are confined. It is a way of postponing absolute rest”, she says.

Indeed, the research runs against the fate that society reserves to the elderly. As people grow older, according to Andréa, there is a common negative experience: retirement (lack of production), widowhood (death), physical change, such as wrinkles and white hair (wearing out) and an empty existence (no role). This set of circumstances would lead easily to a depreciation of the image of old people, who are always associated with uselessness and the loss of any role in society. “These factors unleash the prejudice relating to aging, both by society and by old people themselves”, she justifies.

Andréa’s study begins with the principle that participation in physical activity can counteract this stereotype and make the path of elderliness more positive. “The main objective is to restore the self-esteem of people over 60, by getting them to take part in physical activity. This is because we believe in its influence on identity and consequently on social affirmation”, explains the researcher.

To carry out the work, Andréa Krüger Gonçalves brought together 20 senior citizens for the course “Movement Activities in the Third Age”, given by USP’s Open University of the Third Age. In spite of the focus on physical activity, the work is not just concerned with movement. “This would be a limiting factor. The project is closely associated with meeting new people”, she explains. In this context, the work acquired a secondary objective: that of directly affecting the lives of the people involved. To do this, they emphasized activities to recreate positive self-esteem in the elderly, to make people aware of the social role based on emphasis on the self and on people’s capacity. “This concept of self is strongly related to the feeling of self-sufficiency – made possible by the activities – and enables people to accept themselves as elderly based on an assessment of their real position in life, and this will not be seen as predominantly negative”, she says.

Although the professor has achieved the initial objective of raising participants’ self-esteem, most elderly people still deny aging and abide by the saying “old but young at heart”. “The problem is that the physical activity stimulated by our work is still associated for them with denying aging”, says Andréa. This does not seem to me to be the best solution, because people do not directly recognize the positive side of aging well. People should accept that they are sixty years old and are in good shape, but this is not what happens”, she says.

The researcher vehemently rejects the response of the elderly in denying time to feel satisfied with themselves. “We reach sixty years of age and we say that we feel like someone of 30. As a result we are killing half our life. We should not throw this away”, she maintains. Although she has not managed to prove her theory of making the elderly accept their well-being with their real age, Andréa claims that she has obtained significant results. “They left the course with a more positive feeling about themselves and about older people in general”, says the researcher.

According to Andrea, the fact that the participants in the course “Movement Activities in the Third Age” signed up for the Open University of the Third Age already suggests their willingness to improve their lives. “We started with the assumption that people seek out, or not, a course of this sort out of a feeling of personal need”, she justifies. The selection criterion, therefore, was natural joining. For the researcher, people that seek out third-age groups are interested in these activities because they want to feel challenged. “They want to see what they can still do in life, even being old.

They clearly believe they need to discover their limits in order to feel capable and alive. This has already been seen in many other surveys”, she says. The profile of the 20 participants is quite varied. Most were between 60 and 69 years of age, with some over 70. Eighteen were women and two were men. One of the reasons for the small presence of men in the third-age groups lies in the fact that a man’s entire production, throughout his life, is focused on work. “They are prejudiced against merely social activities that have no productive purpose”, assesses the professor.

According to other surveys carried out on the third-age, a behavioral difference between the sexes can be detected when they lose their partner. Widowhood (or widowerhood) is a very serious business for the elderly. Women almost always have had a larger circle of friends andacquaintances throughout their lives and, for this reason, they are better able to get support outside the home. But this is generally not true of men. Generally they marry again or die quickly”, explains Andréa. “Women do not marry again so readily. For many of them, their marriage was imposed by the family and many feel freer in widowhood”, she continues.

Of the 20 participants in the course, nine were married, seven were widowed and four were separated or divorced. Both the men were married. The length of time of the marriages varied from 30 to 54 years. All had children and most has grandchildren. The educational level was also varied: seven had completed basic education, eight had graduated from high school and five had been to college. “In spite of the differences, there was a good degree of interaction, which I think was one of the positive feature of the course”, observes the researcher.After beginning the physical activity course, many participants began doing a course in languages, painting, and information technology, at USP itself. “One thing leads to another. It reached the point where they were doing something every day. In beginning to occupy their time, the results were positive because their families responded to these works”, she says.

The approach of this work, according to the researcher, is essential nowadays, because, at the same time as the aging of the population reflects a degree of development in a society, is also can imply a serious social problem. “If there are no social and economic changes leading to improved lifestyles and the general well-being of older people, we should soon have a much more difficult situation”, she points out.

In the light of these circumstances it becomes complicated to establish the best sort of housing for the elderly – especially when widowed. “There is a direct relationship between lifestyle and a person’s financial situation. But if an elderly person has no mental problem and is willing to live alone, this is the best option”, says Andréa. But this is controversial. “Those that live alone complain that they have little contact with their children. And old people that live with their children say they cannot be independent”, she says. The choices available to old people in Brazil, however, are far from ideal. “Most elderly people cannot choose to live alone or to live with their children.

Their families and their financial position force people into a given situation. These are the two aspects that determine the lifestyle of old people in Brazil”, says the researcher. “In Europe, it is quite common for old people to live alone, because there is much more infrastructure available as well as respect. In Lisbon, they are even monitored over the Internet”, she tells. Andréa identifies that population changes around the world are also the result of increases in present life expectancy – quite different from 30 years ago. “In the developed world, the problems of the fourth-age, after 80, are already being discussed”, says Andréa. “From the 60s to today, Europe has begun to deal better with the third age. There too, they had no aging reference point”, she says.

In the professor’s view this increase in the elderly share in society has also led to a greater understanding of age that people have. “The stigma of aging is reducing. Older people still try to do the things they did when they were young”, says the researcher. This is the right attitude, in her opinion because a person will always be the same no matter what his or her stage of life. “Life’s dialectics carry on through all the ages. All have both sides of the coin”, she says. “Old age has its shortcomings, but charm can be found in the lack of any obligation to work, with its strict timetable, no worries about raising children, and the relationship with grandchildren is just one of love”, she points out.

In spite of better living conditions for the elderly, the researcher believes that the media play quite an important and negative part in strengthening prejudice against old people, which is still huge. “The means of communication weigh heavily on advertising rejuvenation, especially in terms of the physical image”, she says. “But it is true too that young people undergo much more pressure in this respect. “They are young but they are already worried about the future”, she concludes.

The project
Being Elderly in the World: The Individual and Physical Activity as a Means of Affirmation and Social Identity (nº 96/01475-5); Type Doctoral grant; Coordinator Ecléa Bosi – USP’s Faculty of Psychology; Researcher Andréa Krüger Gonçalves