The opportunity of age: diversity must include the elderly
Positive Ageing Week should remind us that older people are a positive and valued group
It is not enough to be anti-ageist: we need to embrace and welcome our own personal ageing, and that of our older friends and relatives
There are now so many special days for particular medical conditions, and now even whole weeks and months, that there is a danger of public fatigue for the concept. However, as these days usually focus on service-based advocacy and generally point out gaps and deficits in the system, they can unwittingly highlight negativities rather than positivities.
So it is nice to have a week that reminds us of something positive and remarkable, that most of us will live not only longer but also into a healthier old age. Positive Ageing Week, organised by Age Action, encompasses a wide range of events showcasing our gains from this longevity dividend.
In a society that increasingly appreciates the importance and benefits of diversity, it is interesting in how we tend to view this in terms of gender, ethnicity and disability, but not as yet in terms of engagement across the lifespan.
This was brought home to me in a workshop some time ago with the network of European museums on older people. The first iteration was all about hearing-aid loops, ramps, toilets and access, evoking a vision of older people as needy.
After gerontological input, the change was dramatic. Older people were now seen as a key asset, ranging from volunteers, attendees, bringing in grandchildren, users of the shops and cafes, as well a providing a goodly portion of the greatest art in their collections arising from late-life creativity, such as the vibrant efflorescence of the late painting of Jack B Yeats.
Out of this work, the logic of providing access and support for the range of abilities of later life became apparent and a no-brainer, rather than being perceived as an extra burden.
The benefits were also applicable to the differently-abled across the life span, including those with buggies for small children, an incarnation of Bernard Isaac’s dictum that if you design for old, you include the young: if you design for the young, you exclude the old.
A particularly exciting development during the 2017 Positive Ageing Week is the expansion of this approach in higher education, a sector predominantly associated with younger adults. Two more Irish institutions in the sector, Trinity College Dublin and the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland, are formally adopting the principles of the Age-friendly University.
In so doing, they have joined with Dublin City University, a pioneer in this movement since 2012 in recognising that a university is missing out if it does not welcome and accommodate students and staff from all stages of the adult lifespan. The Age-Friendly University views older adults as a particularly important group whose participation in university life is enriching for everybody.
Age-attuning a university requires a significant reorientation from a former emphasis on earlier adulthood, and is also important in terms of congruence with the active research and education agenda of these universities on ageing: no more about us without us, so to speak.
The 10 principles of an Age-Friendly University cover a broad range of elements, from recognition of the range of educational needs of older people to access to the sports, leisure and cultural aspects of university life. Perhaps the most exciting element is the fostering of intergenerational learning and exposure of younger students to a richer understanding of possibilities of later life.
Given that graduates often take up leadership roles in society, there is the possibility of a multiplier effects over decades in promoting the benefits of age-attuning across many sectors from industry, through the arts to public service.
The importance of these and other activities of Positive Ageing Week for healthcare is subtle but potentially seismic in the long run. It is increasingly clear that the erosion of ageism, the greatest barrier to healthcare of those statistically in most need of it, is ill-served by diatribes against ageism.
Instead, rather like the example shown by museums and universities, we need to start seeing older people as a valued and positive group in our society whose needs are therefore worth meeting as a logical consequence.
It is not enough to be anti-ageist: we, including the future old among us, need to embrace and welcome our own personal ageing, and that of our older friends and relatives. Positive Ageing Week provides a marvellous opportunity to take stock of what we have gained and prompts us to do better to nurture and cherish the longevity dividend.