Gerontophobia: the fear of growing old

Tuesday 01 October 2019

Ever heard of gerontophobia? It is the fear of growing old. A lot of people are afraid of growing old. Even though the life expectancy in the Netherlands keeps rising. It is long past due to stop viewing old age as a period of decline, says Hans Barf, researcher at the Talma professorship Living, Well-being, and Old-age care (applied sciences). “Old age is a new phase, not the final phase.”

Ask a child to draw a picture of grandpa or grandma and chances are that a hunched forward, wrinkly individual will appear, with a cane or walking frame. “It’s the image we all fear,” Hans says. “We associate old age with decline. In fact, care professionals have long viewed old age as a decease, something to be fixed. But you can’t stop old age, let alone fix it. It is simply a fact that ageing comes with its share of defects. What we can do, is make sure that those defects don’t limit you in what you still want to do. To make sure that you keep your vitality, despite your age.

What is vitality?

Vitality is a difficult concept to describe, Hans knows. “Vitality is in your genes, in your mindset and in your surroundings. It is more than just staying physically fit. Vitality is your life energy that you draw from a wide range of things. For instance, social relations, volunteer work, or your relationship. In a nutshell: you need to be excited about living life. Having the feeling that you still matter, that you have worth and you have a goal in life.”

“We should no longer view ageing as a final phase, but as a new phase with new opportunities”


And with this, Hans points out the core issue, because many elderly people get lonely especially because these things are missing. “This can be a mindset issue, but it can definitely also be because of society’s expectations,” Hans says. We expect our elderly to enjoy their old age after retirement and maybe look after the grandchildren every once in a while. Physically things are also not looking great and then the world can quickly become smaller. That’s a shame, because elderly people have a wealth of life experience we can benefit from. The image of the elderly being needy and useless is outdated. Many elderly people who live on their own are still vital and active.”

Early ageing

The mindset of elderly people should also change, Hans stresses. “They are often complacent with regards to the decline of their physical and mental condition. They think that’s just part of ageing or their disorder.” It’s exactly that type of decline that could make them vulnerable, the researcher notices in practice. “You may call it early ageing of sorts. They then have insufficient resilience to recover well from things such as hospitalisation, moving, or losing their partner. This, in turn, leads to more complications. Vulnerability is complex, its effects differ per person. We are currently researching how we can support that resilience. It would definitely help if we could all just have a little less gerontophobia.” 

New opportunities

With the increasing life expectancy, the period following your retirement is an ever-growing part of your life. “This can easily be another 25 years,” Hans nods. “We therefore need to stop viewing ageing as the final phase, but as a new phase with new opportunities,” he emphasises. “An 85-year-old mother of a good friend of mine has recently remarried. Getting married after the age of 80, isn’t that wonderful? An increasing number of elderly people start dating later in life, because they are looking for a relationship to enrich their lives.” 

A different mindset

The elderly are becoming increasingly skilled online as well,” Hans notices. “For instance, they are in touch daily with family and friends via WhatsApp and Wordfeud. Superficial interactions like these are of great importance to retain vitality.” The arrival of the e-bike also seems to open up a whole new world. “Or rather, the existing world is becoming more accessible,” Hans explains. “Additionally, it keeps the elderly moving. However, I also hold my breath sometimes to be honest, the way that they speed past on their bikes.”

Solution-orientated mindset

Finally, the researcher discusses the group of elderly people that is already looking forward, and who are thinking about their own future care. “I see a growing group of elderly people that is proactively looking for new opportunities in care. They predict that care won’t be a given and that they may have to do more themselves. For example, take the elderly who create a living area together where they take care of each other. There is always someone who can do a particular task. It means thinking in solutions instead of impossibilities, that is a positive thing.”


As part of the FAITH consortium, Hans is doing his best to change the negative image of ageing. “We need to get rid of the stereotypes of deterioration and death. Old age brings a lot of beautiful new opportunities too. We need to start embracing ageing.”

Hans Barf is researcher at the Talma professorship Living, Well-fare, and Old-age Care at NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences. As part of the FAITH Consortium, he focuses on frailty and resilience of elderly people. The elderly have an increased chance of vulnerability. Small disruptions in physique, cognition, and social circumstances may cause severe complications, such as falls, hospitalisation and premature deaths.