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The immorality of public consolation in the face of ageing

In case you didn’t know: The EU is currently celebrating the “European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations”. The paramount aim of this initiative is to increase the well-being of the elderly by raising awareness that they can still contribute to society by ageing actively, that is, utilising their abilities for their own good and the good of society. In the best case, according to this initiative, not only older people will benefit from ageing actively but also younger ones who do not have the experience and wisdom of earlier generations. Although this is a noble aim, the answer to the question why there should be such a European Year is a gross and seriously immoral distortion of reality: “Because, too often, getting old is perceived as a threat instead of an achievement, both for individuals and for societies. […] Staying active as we grow older is key to tackling the challenge of ageing.”

For many people, be they gerontologists, sociologists, philosophers, or 90 years of age, this must sound like a joke. One is inclined to ask why we should regard it as an achievement rather than a threat to acquire a condition that is constituted by frailty, physical and sometimes mental shortcomings, wrinkles all over one’s body, losing hair and teeth, losing one’s vision, occasionally developing cancer and arteriosclerosis, and finally lying in bed unable to control one’s bladder. We have every reason to conceive of ageing as a threat because it is one of the main causes in a person’s life that leads to a massive decrease of welfare, perhaps only comparable to severe diseases and extreme poverty in its magnitude. Staying active, as the EU claims, might help to alleviate the symptoms of ageing until some point in a person’s life, but it is certainly not “key to tackling the challenge of ageing”. There will come a time where a person will simply be unable to stay active because of the limitations she will experience, and whereas staying active had been sufficient for alleviating the symptoms of ageing before, these symptoms will then be sufficient for confining this person’s activity. The one and only key to tackling the challenge of ageing is solid biomedical science, not idle talk about some presumed advantages of growing old.

The whole European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations is an instance of what I call ‘public consolation’. This phenomenon might not be easy to detect but it certainly exists and bears the following characteristics (not always all of them):

1. There is no singular event – like a natural catastrophe – that triggers the acts of consolation.

2. The acts of consolations are not directed at individuals – like relatives of some deceased person – but at a group of people that is often rather unspecified.

3. Mass media like newspapers, magazines, or the internet cover the acts of consolation and are often instrumentalised by the originators of these acts.

4. The acts of consolation deal with phenomena that common sense disapproves of.

5. The acts of consolation convey the message that common sense is wrong in its disapproval.

Actually, the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations is an ideal instance of public consolation because it bears all of these characteristics. Ageing is no singular event but a biological process, and the originators of the initiative use the internet for conveying the message that ageing is not as bad as we believe to citizens of Europe.

Public consolation could have its merits that I will not deny. There could be phenomena common sense is unjustified to disapprove of, so that a public consolation campaign could have positive effects if it successfully shows why we should rather cope with these phenomena instead of opposing them. In the face of ageing, however, public consolation is utterly inappropriate because it deludes people and distracts them from the harmful effects of ageing. If the public believes that ageing does not lead to a dramatic decrease in a person’s welfare, that growing old is an achievemen rather than a burden, and that not biomedical science but the hollow attempt to stay active until one is taken away by the Grim Reaper is the best response to ageing – why should politicians feel any pressure to commit themselves to the war on ageing? Why should they feel any pressure to give as much attention to ageing as to cancer, AIDS, or Alzheimer’s disease? And why should anyone of us even care about biomedical strategies to battle ageing if there is nothing wrong with it?

A couple of years or even decades ago, when we had no idea how to combat ageing, this form of public consolation would have been justified. Today, however, since we have evidence that ageing is just another, though particularly nasty and robust, condition that makes our lives go worse but could be mutable through biomedical interventions, we should not support public consolation in the face of ageing anymore but oppose it.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. “The whole European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations is an instance of what I call ‘public consolation’. ”

    I agree with your terminology, and also that unfortunately

    “The acts of consolations are not directed at individuals – like relatives of some deceased person – but at a group of people that is often rather unspecified.”
    But the group discussed above is specified by you as “the elderly”, and this also sweeps a broad brush across human beings aged (say) 50 to 100 years. Within that range – even at the oldest end of it – many people are as fit and possibly fitter and more disease-free than far younger people. There is no such cohort as the degenerating elderly or the wise elderly. Therefore – with respect – both the EU project’s generalisations and yours are at best non-specific and vacuous, and at worst a patronising marginalisation of a vast social group.

    In my view, having studied the topic, neither the EU project’s judgement that being elderly is “an achievement” .. full of “experience and wisdom” nor your judgement that it is a “threat”, “particularly nasty” or a “dramatic decrease in a person’s welfare” should be publicly promoted. Individuals of any age who are perceived as belonging to a disadvantaged social group rarely appreciate glib broad-brush stereotypes, or having the difficult or negative aspects of their lives publicly highlighted. They do not want to be told they are either wonderful or second-rate. They just want the same rights, chances and appropriate biomedical interventions as the rest of the population in their wider cultural group.

    Growing older may be a challenge, but so are many phases and debilitations in earlier life. At no life-stage is it true that medical science alone can put everything right. The individual ageing character tends to remain much the same as in earlier life. He or she will either meet the challenges of later life (which may not be physical – ageing is not merely a biological process) and strive to turn life to their advantage, or they may well become a pitiful figure, and thereby be perceived by others as “threatening”. As I have argued in my Journal of Applied Philosophy paper “Struggling To Be Happy – Even when I’m Old”, accepting chosen new challenges keeps us vividly alive, and facilitates dealing with unwanted ones. Best to start character-building right now.

    1. Just one short correction: I do not claim that older people are “second-rate”. This is a common misreading of what I actually say. When I say that ageing is a threat, I do not say that people who have acquired this condition are less valuable or a threat themselves. This would indeed be both factually false and morally wrong. Instead, they deserve our compassion and our help, just as people who suffer from other diseases are not less valuable but should be given treatment because of their condition.

  2. Do you really think a publicity campaign will lead people to believe old age has no negative effects, and will halt research on better health in old age? Do you really think the existing stigma against old people furthers such research?

    It seems to me that correcting a distortion – either “old people are worthless husks” or “aging has no ill effects” – is a good thing. You seem to think this “year for active aging” will completely counteract common sense, which tells us that age has serious disadvantages. I think it’s very unlikely we’ll make it from our current distortion all the way across the spectrum to a new distortion.

    I work with mental patients, who also experience stigma. Misconceptions – that the mentally ill are violent, without morals, and have nothing good in their lives – don’t help anyone. Correcting misconceptions is not going to give anyone, whether they’re part of that population or not, the idea that life with mental illness is a bowl of cherries. We can observe that a person with schizophrenia experiences genuine suffering due to her illness, but also has abilities and things that she’s able to enjoy. Likewise, we can observe that an 87-year-old endures pain and inconvenience because of age, but that he also enjoys his flower garden and seeing his grandkids.

    If anything, a horror of old age creates a divide between old and young that hampers age research. If I see old age as so different from my current life that I refuse to think about the fact that I will become old, no one wins. (And people do think this way – look at the people celebrating the 10th or 20th anniversary of their 30th birthday rather than saying the actual number.)

    Rather than writing off old people as a lost cause, I’d rather see us acknowledging old people as real people with abilities, disabilities, hopes, and desires.

    1. 1. I do not claim that older people are “worthless hunks”. In fact, I do not make any value judgment about persons at all, but only about a certain condition: ageing. It is annoying that people constantly misread this claim.
      2. I totally agree with you that old people are “real people with abilities, disabilities, hopes, and desires”. And the reason for fighting ageing is that many of their desires won’t be satisfied because of this condition.

      1. Sorry, I didn’t mean that you personally claimed old people are worthless, but that it’s a commonly held idea. If this campaign corrects that misconception, I think it will do us all a service.

        1. Agreed. If the campaign corrects public misconceptions about older people and leads to an improvement of their lives, then, for the most part, it’s fine for me. However, it should be possible to correct misconceptions about older people without making dubious statements about ageing itself.

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