BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – Simón Klubok hangs up the telephone, still holding a prodigiously annotated list of more than 800 names. Klubok, 84, has called his friends with birthdays today, just as he does every morning from his apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital.
“There are people who live alone and are waiting for me to call them once a year,” he says. “It is incredible. I do not want to lose that connection with these people.”
After Klubok’s phone calls, an hour at the gym awaits him. At his trainers’ urging, he has stopped working out every day and has resigned himself to three classes weekly.
In the afternoon, he plans to lead a guided tour for elderly people through Buenos Aires, he says. Since closing his fabric store 11 years ago, he has discovered his true avocation: tourism. With great pleasure, he learns the history and characteristics of different parts of the city and shares this knowledge through his guided tours.
With his bustling day and long list of contacts, Klubok reflects a new image of the elderly adult: a vital person who plays an active role in community life.
As the number of older adults rises in Buenos Aires on par with global trends, a paradigm shift is occurring in conceptions of advanced age, and elderly residents are playing a more active role in society, specialists say. A range of public and private programs in the capital aim to help senior citizens to develop the tools they need to thrive during their golden years, such as humor and strong social ties. Still, some older adults are unaware of these changes, and experts acknowledge that achieving a broader societal shift will take time.
Adults ages 65 and older make up 16.4 percent of Buenos Aires’ population, according to the most recent city census figures. While this population has increased only slightly since 1980, the number of adults who are older than 80 has more than doubled. In 2010, 5.1 percent of the city’s population was older than 80, up from 2.5 percent in 1980.
The population of older adults is growing globally as well, says Claudio Romero, subsecretary of senior citizens in the city’s Ministry of Social Development. Adults older than 60 will make up 11 to 22 percent of the global population by 2050, according to the World Health Organization.
Now that people are living longer, those ages 65 or 70 can expect to have many years of life ahead to enjoy, Romero says. This demographic shift brings with it a paradigm shift: Although society used to associate old age with mental and physical decline, older people are beginning to play a more active role in society. At the same time, society is changing the way it sees older adults and is offering them more opportunities to stay active.
Buenos Aires created a special office in 2011 charged with creating activities for older people.
With funding from the city’s Ministry of Social Development, the Directorate General for the Promotion of Active Aging organizes a range of free workshops for older adults, Romero says. Some sessions, such as tango and gym classes, center on the body. Others focus on engaging the mind through memory exercises, literature, singing and crafts. The classes take place in plazas or enclosed spaces throughout the city, with the goal of making them widely accessible.
The office also seeks to promote intergenerational solidarity through programs that bring older adults to municipal primary schools and nursery schools. The elders read the children stories and tell them about the games they enjoyed during their youth.
“For us, active aging is an experience of respect toward those people who are a cultural, historical and social reserve,” Romero says, adding that this attitude toward elders is similar to that which prevails in Eastern cultures.
The shifts in conceptions of old age that are playing out in Buenos Aires reflect global changes. For example, the European Union declared 2012 as the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations with the goal of sensitizing society to the contributions that older citizens can make.
Public and private programs in Buenos Aires aim to give elderly residents the tools they need to adapt to their new phase of life.
Older adults undergo many changes, and they need tools to face them, says Graciela Spinelli, a gerontology expert who organizes activities for older adults, which are not affiliated with the municipal programming.
Humor is one of the most important tools for older adults, Spinelli says. She leads a workshop for elders called “Humor is a serious thing,” which she started in 2009, at Universidad Maimónides in Buenos Aires.
“If a person is passing through the last phase of their life, they should be able to enjoy and to laugh until the final moment,” Spinelli says. “I aspire to that – that humor can be a tool that people can turn to daily to improve their quality of life and to generate endorphins.”
Under the tutelage of Spinelli, about 40 older adults convene each week for the workshop, she says. They discuss a topic relevant to their phase of life, such as death, then do an activity or play a game related to the theme.