Economía · 29 March 2021

Gerontology in today's society: why it is essential and has a future

We live in times of professional reinvention. People of all ages are looking for new jobs and new ventures. There are new challenges in new pandemic times.

I have long argued that the Silver Economy is a vast field of opportunities, of challenges that make it possible to improve the world, to improve the lives of people, especially the most fragile, and to make a living; to make money out of it. Gerontology is thus the science of the future.

It is necessary to begin with a clarification: gerontology is not a concept, far from it, synonymous with geriatrics. 

Gerontology is the interdisciplinary science that studies the various aspects of individual old age and the ageing of a population. At the individual level, from a holistic perspective, it considers ageing from conception to death. 

In a more limited sense and with the priority objective of the functional-corporal care of the elderly person, geriatrics is a medical speciality that prevents and treats the effects of the passage of time, of ageing, on the human body. It is therefore limited to the medical, health and hospital aspects, etc., in order to improve the person's condition.

It is to be expected that gerontology will become increasingly central in our society: population ageing, linked to the economic dimension of the challenge of longevity and the social challenges of this phenomenon (health, pensions, care, etc.), places the elderly at the epicentre of any debate on the future of humanity.

The COVID 19 pandemic has done its own thing: retirement homes, the loneliness of the elderly and the challenge of care for the elderly in empty Spain have been the subject and central element of papers and documents, transmedia documentaries, debates and pandemic stories.

In this way, this fashionable scientific orientation (just take a look at the contents of the media or the diversity of works on the shelves of bookshops, both physical and digital) analyses the aspects of the elderly in the care of the elderly:

  • Biological. From this point of view, bio-gerontology focuses on health and will analyse accordingly:
  • How to live longer, but also better. It will be concerned with pursuing active ageing, with habits, attitudes and behaviours that favour quality of life in a longer life.
  • How to slow down the process of senescence and its symptoms through preventive anti-ageing medicine. Also through habits and attitudes, individual behaviours and therapies: telomerase, rapamycin, oxytocin, metmorphine, calorie restriction, faecal transplantation, etc. Hormonal therapies and all kinds of treatments will take on great force in gerontology in the coming years; one of the words we will become accustomed to hearing is juvenescence, as a current of thought in which the so-called longevists tell us, perhaps exaggerating: "ageing is a disease and it can be treated".
  • Biomarkers, biological indicators that can be measured and their presence and intensity related to the development of a disease.
  • Nutrition. The aim is to achieve a healthy and balanced diet so that the body gets the nutrients it needs, i.e. to eat functional foods or nutritional supplements ("you are what you eat", as the saying goes) so that the elderly person is well nourished. They may suffer from alterations in their sense of taste or smell, dysphagia or other problems with chewing and/or digestion, intake of medication that generates the need for supplements, complements or elimination of food, etc.
  • Sleep and rest.

It is clear that this gerontological dimension demands and requires close collaboration with the geriatric physician.

In the coming years, and we can already see it, biometrics and the use of wearables (bracelets, watches and the like) will be of great help in controlling the quality of life and monitoring the ageing of older adults. Gerontology and geriatrics in close collaboration, thanks to the technology involved.

  • Psychogerontological. Psychogerontology is concerned with psychological aspects and emotional balance. It analyses change in the elderly and their psychology, relationships with others, with partners, with friends, with family. It is also concerned with how it affects the psychological relationship of the person with money (fears, uncertainties, doubts, fears), with retirement, time management (more abundant when leaving active life). In particular, gerontology deals with the management of loneliness, a serious social problem, and its individual impact on the person. The analysis of family and friendship ties will therefore be of great importance.

    Social. Its main objective is to keep the elderly person within the family (as we said in the previous point), if necessary, or in their own home (if that is where they want to be), but socialising and interacting in society. Social gerontology studies the role and participation of older adults in society, seeking intergenerationality. 

Changes in lifestyles mean that family members are not always in a position to provide the required care for the elderly, which makes it necessary to plan care and its provision, with public-private partnerships between companies and home care institutions, etc.

The existence of a network of residential homes and other housing approaches (senior cohousing and any living options that provide quality of life for the elderly, socialising and in/with the best health care at home, however that may be) will be another source of employment for gerontology.

In this field, gerontology will be concerned with:

  • Avoid ageism and any kind of marginalisation on the grounds of age (or any other, of course).

    The development of a welfare and care system at all levels, which addresses the multiple alterations and medical-social problems of older adults, which can lead to the loss of autonomy and independence of the elderly.

    The mobilisation of all resources to achieve an intergenerational society.

    The organisation of long-term care for the elderly in need, of whom there will be more and more.

    Research, teaching and continuous training of all types of professionals required socially for the new demographic reality. 

    Social policies, social work, sociology of longevity, occupational therapies and other related sciences and technical approaches. All have great potential for the future.

It is worth mentioning environmental gerontology, an area of knowledge of gerontology that aims to understand, analyse, modify and optimise the relationship between the ageing person and their physical-social environment, from perspectives and approaches that encompass different disciplines such as the geography of ageing, urban planning and the design of "senior-friendly" cities, with accessible architecture and design.

  • Economic. Gerontology analyses the economic impact of longevity, contemplating public-private collaboration that allows, fundamentally, foreseeing solutions for the two most relevant swords of Damocles that, from the economic point of view, hang over society:
  • The economic management of health, care and chronicity.
  • The economic management of pensions, in an economy in which there will be fewer contributors and more pension claimants and in which, therefore, it will be necessary to raise awareness among the future elderly of the need to anticipate a life of one hundred years and the liquidation of assets to supplement the public pension and be able to cover the needs of a foreseeably longer life, with quality in all senses of the word.
  • Anthropological and cultural. I mentioned earlier ageism, framed in the non-inclusive social consideration that, unfortunately, exists in our society. We have been concerned about the elderly when the media have shown us their extreme fragility, also in an extreme way. But the truth is that the different generations live in watertight compartments; gerontology, from this point of view, has to be in charge of cementing spaces of intergenerational coexistence of mutual support between people regardless of when they were born.

Consequently, there is and will be employment in gerontology as a consequence of longevity, both in the public and private sector. 

There will also, of course, be employment in geriatrics as a medical discipline. This is the speciality dedicated to the study of the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of diseases in the elderly. Its main characteristics are:

  • It concentrates on people who begin to lose their capacities and faculties, mainly from the age of 75 onwards, and happily later and later.
  • It is also for those with relevant multi-pathology. It is common for very old people to have several overlapping pathologies, which generates delicate drug treatments, and the side effects of the chemical components are dangerous.
  • The aim is to delay the dependency of the elderly as much as possible, and to avoid it if possible, as is natural.
  • Cognitive stimulation and the prescription of various exercises to prevent brain deterioration are of great importance.

Gerontologists and geriatricians will analyse, together, the different age groups according to demographic profile, epidemiological profile (the obsession with possible future pandemics will keep us busy to prevent the disaster of 2020 from happening again), health determinants and risk factors and public policies, among other things. 

There are jobs and there is a future in the world of longevity. 

Caring for the well-being of older adults, in short, is caring for social well-being. Working on everything that can affect the standard of living and happiness of the elderly is a wonderful challenge for humanity in the long-lived society of the 21st century.

Under the framework of: Programa Operativo Cooperación Transfronteriza España-Portugal
Sponsors: Fundación General de la Universidad de Salamanca Fundación del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas Direção Geral da Saúde - Portugal Universidad del Algarve - Portugal