Barbro Westerholm, 81: “For me, it is important to have a purpose”

Name: Barbro Westerholm.
Age: Born in 1933
Profession: Physician. Member of the Swedish Riksdag, representing the Liberal Party, since 2006. Among other positions, she has been the Director General of the National Board of Health and Welfare.
Best thing about getting older: You collect more experience and knowledge.
Worst thing about getting older: The possibilities of seeing results in issues that concern me become fewer, since political change takes such a long time.

Barbro Westerholm. Photo: Joel Nilsson och Henric Lindsten

“How we add years to our lives is individual. It is clear that you need to do something that feels meaningful, so that you feel needed, to keep going. I have noticed that people who do not find anything stimulating to do after retirement have a hard time. That leads to weariness.

I have always had the luxury of having stimulating and challenging matters on my plate. This pushes me to keep working. Political change takes time. I have, for example, promoted insemination for singles since the early 1990s, and a bill on this subject is about to be motioned – after more than 20 years. Combating discrimination of the elderly is another important issue for me. We should see people who are rich in years as a resource in society, and I want it to be possible to keep working for longer. I became head of the National Board of Health and Welfare at the age of 46, but today I would have been a better superior, both in terms of my leadership and my choice of issues to push for. I am also able to make decisions more quickly today, at the same time as I have also learned when it’s time to sleep on it.

My working days are as long now as they were when I was head of the National Board of Health and Welfare. In addition to my work in the Riksdag, I have a commission from the National Board of Forensic Medicine and the Swedish National Council on Medical Ethics, and I also give lectures. I spend a lot of time upgrading my lectures, to keep them at a high standard. If I were to give a bad lecture, I would immediately be told that I had ‘outlived my purpose’ or receive other condescending remarks. As a 40-year-old, you were allowed to have a bad day, and to do better next time.

Purely physically, I feel fine. I had hip surgery ten years ago, and since then I can’t ski, and I have trouble swimming, but otherwise I’m fine. Medical advances are amazing. When I was little, I would go with my grandmother when she read to elderly people with visual impairments. Today, cataract operations are common procedures and we can keep reading ourselves.”

As told to Fredrik Hedlund. First published in the magazine Medical Science 2015.

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