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.
“What I feel that I can do through my professional work is to guide, to accompany in a give and take,” Spinelli says, “where I learn a lot from the people, but I can also help them to inform themselves, to understand what is happening to them, to assimilate to it, to understand it.”
The university also offers other courses for older adults on subjects such as memory, literature and theater. Students pay tuition to enroll.
Establishing strong social ties is another important tool with which to approach the aging process, Spinelli says.
“Today it is known that forming part of groups, having a social life, getting outside of the four walls and the isolation is a factor protective of health,” she says.
For this reason, it is often older adults who create their own spaces of exchange and to create social ties, such as forming community groups that offer activities for their peers, she says.
One example occurred on a recent afternoon in a Buenos Aires park, where teams of older men and women gathered to play “tejo,” a game that is similar to bocce or lawn bowls but played with wooden disks. Some players argued good-naturedly about the games they were playing, while others calmly waited on the sidelines for their turn. A radio propped against a pillar played old tango songs.
The group, Amigos por el Tejo, became a formal association 10 years ago, says Carlos Sallucci, its vice president. This was after municipal authorities gave it a plot in the city park, where it still meets.
The group offers its members not only a way to stay in shape, but also the opportunity to enjoy the company of friends, says Sallucci, a 77-year old widow. Although the group’s principal goal is to bring together people who are interested in playing tejo, members also play other games, such as dominoes and the card game truco.
“We come to have a good time, to clear our heads and to get together,” Sallucci says. “Whenever we can, we light the grill to share a barbecue.”
Klubok, with his list of birthdays, also sees the need for maintaining social ties. In the guided tours he organizes, he ensures that the group is no larger than 12 to 15 people in order to encourage interaction among the participants. Each trip ends in a bar or restaurant, where he arranges for the tables to form a horseshoe so that everyone can see one another’s faces and converse.
“I want the people who are part of the groups to get to know one other in another way,” he says. “I do not want this to be treated as a cold, distant outing, without a really warm aspect.”
This new way of looking at aging in Buenos Aires has not yet extended throughout the country, Spinelli says. Although some local governments elsewhere in Argentina may offer programs for older adults, there are fewer independently organized activities available in smaller communities.
Even within Buenos Aires, many older adults have yet to leave behind their own preconceived notion of aging, Spinelli says.
“It is very common to hear them say, ‘This is no longer for me,’ or, ‘My life already passed,’” she says. “Many today do not experience their free time as an opportunity to do things. In contrast, others do see it as a possibility to do many things that they did not do before. And there, they make use of potentials that they used to keep hidden.”
Romero says promoting active aging is a new policy strategy that depends on participation, empowerment and intergenerational solidarity.
“It is about promoting that older adults in this city enjoy active participation in family and social life by means of continual learning, cultural expression, intergenerational relations, and the development of healthy activities,” she says.
Spinelli says altering attitudes toward aging, like any social change, requires a shift from society as a whole.
“No one changes what they do not notice,” Spinelli says.
She trusts that as years pass, more people will begin to notice this paradigm shift and that what today seems to be a new phenomenon will seem natural.
GPJ translated this article from Spanish.