Psychological aspects of an ageing society with the example of Chile

Written by Frank Schürch, STC, Embassy of Switzerland in Chile

General situation in Chile

Chile is an advanced ageing society. Indicators for an ageing society are amongst the highest in Latin America. Life expectancy for example, is higher than ever before. For women of age 60 it is 91 years and for men of age 65 it is 86 years. Furthermore, in 2016, 15% of the population is over 60 years old, while 24% make up the millenial generation. With the changing demographics in Chile, those two groups are expected to reach equal size in 2026.

Currently post-retirement financial security is the hottest topic in Chile. The pension system is strongly flawed and is based on private contribution to one’s own pension fund instead of the more common system based on solidarity.

In the current private pension system, the monthly pension is in most cases insufficient. The sum received on average is just 300 CHF, while the minimum wage is set at roughly 375 CHF. To receive a pension that guarantees financial security for one’s retirement, a person earning the minimum wage would contribute far more than the compulsory mark of 10% of his or her salary to the pension.

Moreover, the current pension system fosters high levels of inequality among senior citizens. This leads to one out of three retirees in Chile pursuing some kind of paid work. The majority of these are forced to work in order to survive financially.

Due to these financial challenges, poorer Chileans in particular, demand a new system of pensions. Nationwide protests beginning in the end of July of this year were held with demands for a system based on more solidarity. The protests continue while politicians discuss possible reforms.

Research concerning ageing society 

Despite discussion regarding the financial aspect of retirement, the Chilean government invests in research with a focus on psychological aspects in tackling the problems of an ageing society in Chile. The goal is to obtain knowledge about the origins of well-being in the elderly and then take appropriate measures in order to cope with the realities of an ageing society.

Daniela Thumala is the leading Chilean scientist and psychologist on this topic at the Universidad de Chile. Her work as psychologist with mainly elderly patients gives her detailed insight on their mental health.

Some psychological problems related to old age that Thumala encounters in her daily work are: lack of social participation, low self-esteem, high levels of anxiety and depression. However, she notes that the latter “is not of great significance. In Chile, people over the age of 65 experience far less depression than people in the age group 15 – 24 years.”

Drawing from her experiences of therapy sessions with the elderly, Thumala focuses her research on how to best tackle the psychological challenges of later life and what the key to happiness in seniority is. With her research she seeks prevention strategies and aims to contribute to the general well-being of the ageing society in Chile. She argues that psychological interventions are necessary to facilitate a satisfactory ageing process.

To find psychological issues underlying the high levels of anxiety and depression of her patients, Thumala asks the question if it is possible to find high levels of well-being in later life where people experience significant losses and difficulties. She categorizes possible losses into four different spheres:

  • Physical: health, physical capacity
  • Social: death of loved ones, social integration
  • Emotional: quality of relationships, sexual activity
  • Economic: quality of life in a material sense

Results from her research show that the vast majority of elderly people seek to overcome their losses by adapting to the new circumstances. They make modifications of their own goals and preferences in order to cope with the stresses of loss. However, she also observed cases of isolation, submission, helplessness and escape as a result of these stresses.

From interviews with various elders, Thumala concludes that it is not the losses themselves, but the way one deals with them, that determine one’s state of well-being. Therefore, she calls for better preparation of oneself in order to be able to mentally deal with upcoming losses that are inevitable.

The vicious cycle of ageism and how to overcome it

To address the topic of social exclusion, which was often picked out as central theme of her patients, Thumala asked 682 university students what their image of old age in Chile is. Before revealing the results of her survey it is interesting to ask oneself which words describe the elderly in society.

Associated words with old age mentioned in her survey were:

  • dependent
  • fragile
  • lonely
  • senile
  • sexually inactive
  • marginalized
  • demotivated

These words all have negative connotations, which creates a negative overall picture. Moreover, Thumala found that the common images of old age are far from representing what senior citizens themselves think and feel or how they perceive going through this stage of life. For example, young Chileans think three fourths of elderly people cannot take care of themselves on their own. However, the reality is the other way around: three quarters of them are not dependent. This is the case for most such negative presumptions.

These and further results of her conducted research suggest that the image of the elderly is a generalized negative image. She calls these negative stereotypes and images towards someone because of their old age and the possible resulting discrimination as ageism (a word derived from expressions such as sexism or machismo). She explains the creation of these negative images as follows: “In today’s society, personal accomplishments are associated with success and success is, in turn, linked to social status and money. It is not surprising then that competitive capacities, which are attributed mainly to young people and young adults, are seen as key elements to reach happiness.”

Thumala argues that ageism must be combated because it can create a vicious cycle in two ways. First, because society perceives old age as part of life where the key elements to happiness are missing, negative images are created which senior citizens themselves conform to. This can lead to sadness, loneliness and even social death, which only reinforce the negative images. Second, ageing like death is inevitable and everyone must face his or her own declining years. A negative image of old age acts as a disincentive to preparing for it since people might not see the point in preparing for something that they see as inevitably negative. As a consequence, the chances of experiencing old age positively are less likely and yet again its negative image is strengthened.

To break the vicious cycle of ageism, Thumala argues for a change to the negative social image of old age. Thus the elderly are more appreciated leading to better social inclusion. Furthermore, enhancing the image of old age makes for a virtuous circle that creates well-being and mental health in an ageing society.

Finally, the reality of an ageing society should be seen in a positive light. As the Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung once said: “A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.”


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