Adjust the text

Interview: Over-85s Eager to Support Younger Generation


Civic engagement is growing among older adults as increasing numbers pursue innovative projects to improve communities.

Andreas Kruse and Eric Schmitt from the University of Heidelberg wanted to understand how those over 80 view civic engagement as well as the kinds of opportunities available to them.

The results, published in Research in Human Development on April 2, 2015, involved 400 Germans, aged 85 to 99. Roughly, three quarters of the participants lived in their own homes, and two-thirds were female. In addition, the study surveyed 800 employees of voluntary organizations and municipalities, which offered opportunities for civic engagement across Germany.

Researchers were surprised by their findings.

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Kruse, director of the Institute for Gerontology at the University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany.

Ruth Dempsey: Your research looked at civic engagement. Why did you want to focus on adults 85 years and older?

Andreas Kruse: When we speak about age, the focus is usually on the third age, the years from 65 to 85. The fourth age, or the years after 85, are usually hidden or only considered from a vulnerability perspective.

Does the fourth age equal vulnerability? I wanted to examine this question more closely.

Also, I wanted to use empirical findings to oppose the common assumption that people in the fourth age are not only expensive for society, but they are not able to contribute anything to society.

RD: The study found 51 percent of older adults were civically engaged. Did this surprise you?

AK: Yes, it did surprise me because when we hear about the fourth age, we invariably hear about the losses.

This is why in the interviews, we asked older people to talk to us about their major concerns. Their concerns were mainly for members of succeeding generations, especially for the younger generation. They wanted to reach out to them and support them.

I find it remarkable that many people at this great old age are motivated to want to do things for other people.

RD: Many did not differentiate between helping family members and helping members of the community. What did they do for family members?

AK: They provided financial support, and they engaged in very confidential conversations. Giving assistance within the family usually requires greater attention, and it is more sustained.

RD: What did they do in the community?

AK: Almost half of older people believed their knowledge and experience might be useful to young people. They encouraged the younger generation in their schooling and education. They also supervised play activities for young children.

Very old participants shared emotionally-trusting conversations with friends. They supported neighbours with everyday activities and visited those in need of care. Almost 30 per cent made donations to clubs and voluntary organizations. Some were involved in their church communities.

RD: What inspired them to get involved?

AK: The majority of older people told us that they found pleasure in warm meaningful encounters with other people, especially the younger generations.

They had three kinds of motivation:

First, they feel the need to reach out to the young and support their development.

Secondly, they want to live on in the future generations, even when they are no longer alive themselves.

And finally, these older citizens feel a responsibility to society and to the planet. In other words, they want to contribute to the world having a future and to successive generations having opportunities to lead a good and successful a life.

RD: You also asked employees to rate the contribution of two groups: those in the third age (60-84 years) and those in the fourth age (85 years and older). What did you find?

AK: Both groups are committed contributors. In the group of 60 to 84-year-olds, more people are involved in helping others than in the group of 85-year-olds and older.

At the same time, we found a remarkable willingness in over-85s to get involved. People, in this group, focused primarily on the social environment and creating emotionally close relationships.

RD: What did the study reveal about vulnerability?

AK: The findings show that the fourth age is about more than vulnerability. In short: vulnerability and creative life; and vulnerability and commitment to other people are by no means mutually exclusive.

RD: Overall, employees viewed over-85s less positively. What can be done to build more supportive environments?

AK: I think a change of attitude is essential. We need to respect and value very old people – not only as community members but also as active contributors to civil society.

Moreover, we need to show employees of voluntary organizations that the emotional and spiritual potential of people in the fourth age is considerable.

More concretely, we need social structures that foster open and trusting relationships between the generations, such as:

  • community centres
  • age-friendly organizations, and
  • multi-generational housing.

Very old people point out they need help to be able to get to places where they can meet young people.

Given the right circumstances, older people would have opportunities to share rich conversations with the young about life's big questions, maybe even think about very different forms of spirituality. They would have opportunities to offer encouragement and emotional support. In turn, young people could share their valuable ideas with the old.

The past century has seen remarkable improvements in life expectancy. Our findings suggest this kind of emotional and cognitive engagement increases life satisfaction in very old age. Besides, recognizing the creative wealth of the fourth age could lead to a more caring and inclusive society.