‘Why we should adopt an elder’

Each week a global thinker from the worlds of philosophy, science, psychology or the arts is given a minute to put forward a radical, inspiring or controversial idea – no matter how improbable – that they believe would change the world.

This week cognitive neuroscientist Heather Berlin argues that all young people should spend compulsory, regular time with an elderly person.

"I would like to initiate an “adopt-an-elder” programme where everyone at the age of 18 is required to adopt an elderly person; that is, somebody 75 years of age and above. It could be a family member or a friend, and if they don’t have either, they can be matched with an elderly person through a website like matchanelder.com.

They also must chronicle the life of their adoptee, and add it to the adopt-an-elder database. The elderly person will enjoy the youthful energy and social interaction with their adopter, and the young person will learn life lessons and benefit from the wisdom of the elderly person, and learn about mortality and what really matters in life.

Scientists can analyse the life stories in the database and look for patterns of behaviour, for which they might be able to come up with rules of thumb to teach people how not to repeat the mistakes of their elders.

So the purpose of this programme is not simply for the younger people to help elderly people – which is a nice side effect – but to help themselves. For those who help others help themselves. So in the end, what looks like a selfless act is really a selfish act, but will improve society overall."

You can listen to Heather discuss her idea with novelist Jeffrey Eugenides and biologist Mark Moffett in more detail on the BBC World Service programme The Forum, where you can also download more 60-second ideas.

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