“As long as we are healthy, life should be active. We get better with age”.
TEXT: NURIA DEL OLMO PHOTOGRAPHY: ALBERTO CARRASCO
He is a strong proponent of socializing, talking, a sense of humor and staying active. It is his formula for feeling good, physically and mentally. The Spanish psychiatrist, based in New York, visited Madrid to talk about the power of aging. He spoke at a conference organized by Fundación MAPFRE’s Ageingnomics Research Center, where he explained the importance of taking advantage of experience and knowledge to enjoy the later stages of life.
Despite suffering from jet lag that forces him to speak slowly, Luis Rojas Marcos (Seville, 1943) feels great. He recognizes that he still has the energy and humor necessary to face each day, which he occupies mainly with university classes, writing, running marathons and enjoying his family. Now, at 79 years of age, the doctor of psychiatry, who has just landed in Madrid, takes stock. He admits that since he arrived in New York in 1968, it has been all responsibilities and important positions, something he never imagined. He has worked with fantastic people, but with whom he has not been very close. And he misses this, because, as he says, having good friends is crucial and you have to make an effort to keep them for when you need them.
Rest doesn’t seem to be an option for you.
I don’t like the idea of resting. I believe that as long as we are healthy, life should be an activity and an opportunity to continue learning and accomplishing unfulfilled desires. I was hyperactive as a child, so you can imagine, I have always had a lot of energy, even though sometimes it can be exhausting. There are people who say to me, “But, Luis, you are always so busy. Why don’t you sit down so we can chat for a while.” I think that having projects and socializing is fundamental. I talk a lot, sometimes to myself, sometimes to the birds in the kitchen, and that helps me. Of course, you always have to speak affectionately, just as you would like others to speak to you.
The title of your lecture focuses on the word power, something that is not usually associated with old age. Why do you think there is discrimination against older people?
Age discrimination is real and is associated with culture. In countries like India or China, for example, older people are considered wise and treated with respect, but in Europe and the United States, age has negative connotations, linked to something that no longer works, and that is not the case. I don’t think we should use the word aging. In fact, I believe that mandatory retirement makes no sense. Twenty years ago I reflected on this and made it clear that the rules that relegate the elderly to work inactivity are backward and go against the grain, since, from a psychological point of view, forced retirement is often counterproductive. Discrimination, a lack of things to do and loneliness do not help people to feel good.
What does it mean to age well? What should we do to become more joyful, positive and active as we grow older?
The first thing is to ask ourselves what we would like to do. It is not enough to think that we are happy because we have achieved what was expected of us or what we were told would bring us satisfaction, such as starting a family, having professional success, money, a good house. You should always ask yourself what makes you feel good on a personal level. You can even ask people who know you and understand when you are the happiest. Once you realize that, I believe that you have to get organized and put all your enthusiasm into making your plans come to pass. You have to take advantage of the years, get the best out of life, appreciate your faculties and abilities, and let the people who love you help you to achieve this.
“You have to make the most of your years, appreciate your skills and let others help you to achieve this.”
Do you apply this yourself?
Yes, of course. What makes me happy is feeling useful, especially in my field, which is medicine and science, and by that I mean helping others, something that is proven to make you feel very good while improving someone else’s life. In fact, people who volunteer an hour a day are in a good mood and sleep better. A few days ago, I helped an elderly woman get out of a cab in New York City because she was really struggling. Even this simple act meant I went home in high spirits.
What are we better at as we get older?
Life teaches us so much that I always argue that we get better with age. I think we have a greater capacity for self-control, we have clearer priorities, we appreciate everything much more, we don’t panic and we don’t have so much external pressure. We are freer and that makes us feel better. I should also highlight experience, which is always talked about, and which is so useful on a personal level, but also in the professional arena, where it should be recognized more.
You continue to run marathons, teach at the university and are about to unveil a new book. How do you think we should prepare ourselves (mentally and physically) given that we are likely to live longer
Well, to start with, you have to make sure you are well informed, especially in countries where there is a social stigma towards the elderly. That’s why I recommend that when you are close to 40 or 50 you should take a good look at what the 60, 70 and 80 year olds are like and think about what you would like to be doing when you reach that age, how you would like to feel, who you would like have around you. I think it’s important to look at all the options and plan for those new stages ahead of us. And from the physical point of view, eating well, sleeping the right number of hours, exercising and talking a lot, as I said before.
What does good mental health really mean?
Above all, it means having peace of mind, accepting yourself and others, and setting realistic and reasonable limits for yourself. When faced with any kind of symptom, you must reach out. We all need help at some point. It is smart to realize this and ask for help.
There are more and more children and young people in psychology and psychiatry clinics. Why is this happening?
People still suffer from depression, but what we are increasingly seeing is the result of the impact of the pandemic on young people, which translates into confusion, uncertainty, not knowing what is going to happen with their education, or in their working lives. And of course, access to drugs is also increasing and unfortunately, young and not-so-young people think that this can help them overcome anxiety and fear. We are also seeing an increase in suicides and family conflicts.
What do you think of a research center like the one at Fundación MAPFRE that highlights the opportunities of living longer?
It is truly extraordinary that there is a center like Ageingnomics, which analyzes a reality that affects so many people and which highlights everything that the over-50s can contribute to the economy, to the world of work, to consumption and to society in general. We need entities like Fundación MAPFRE to help raise the profile of older people, who are generally in good physical and mental condition and lead an active and self-sufficient life. It is important that this type of project reminds us of this because, unfortunately, in today’s society there is increasingly widespread discrimination against older people that is not realistic, that is not based on any objective data and that needs to be eliminated.
What does success mean to you?
For me success means being at ease with myself and with others, being an open and communicative person and, of course, not being in any pain.
Optimists with a sense of humor
“Spanish women live a long time because they talk so much.” This is a phrase that Luis Rojas Marcos has repeated many times and, whenever he does so, he always manages to make the audience laugh. It happened again on Tuesday, June 21, during a keynote lecture where the doctor from Seville, author of countless books, including Somos lo que hablamos We Are What We Speak came to Madrid to talk about the power of the mind in aging and explain how we should take advantage of the new challenges offered by a longer life. During his talk he stressed that extroverts have many advantages, that hope is the basic ingredient of optimism, that the disease that robs us of hope is depression, and that to prevent this it is very important to take control of oneself, have confidence in difficult situations, and learn to adapt to change. He also stressed the importance of remembering the positive moments in our lives and having a sense of humor, which is key to helping us overcome difficult times.