Absence of a national plan on ageing reflects leadership failure

 

Global ageing offers opportunities and challenges, but it will require a major joint effort to recalibrate our attitudes and systems, writes Desmond ONeill

AN AGEING population is not just a phenomenon of western societies. Many Irish people think of the developing world in terms of young populations and a huge burden from infectious diseases such as malaria, TB and HIV.

They might be surprised to learn that there are now more older people in the developing world than in the developed world, and that the major causes of death are increasingly the diseases of the West, such as heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Older people have played key roles in the developing world. An example is the supporting and caring for children of the lost middle generation in sub-Saharan countries afflicted by the scourge of HIV.

The awarding of the prestigious Prix des Genérations to former president Mary Robinson by the World Demographic Association in St Gallen last weekend was a recognition of her work in promoting ageing as a key factor in achieving global equity and human rights.

Alongside influential elder statesmen and women such as Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter, she is a member of the Elders (www.theElders.org), a group founded by Mandela on the basis that although we are becoming a global village, we had not a group of global elders.

The Elders can be a group who have the trust of the world, who can speak freely, be fiercely independent and respond fast and flexibly in conflict situations.This initiative is a potent symbol of the potential of collective ageing, and how it offers us all an enormous source of extra human capital and wisdom.

While ageing is an extraordinarily rich resource for present and future generations, it also poses challenges to societies and systems still geared predominantly to the needs of younger populations.

Enormous changes are required, and have prompted a remarkable series of annual meetings in St Gallen, Switzerland, hosted by the World Demographic Association, to bring together industry chiefs, designers, economists, politicians and scientists in ageing from all over the world to create blueprints for a world that benefits from these increased numbers of older people.

These meetings, held in St Gallen, have a major emphasis on global ageing, with participants from all continents.

Indeed, innovation is very much a two-way process, and both developed and developing worlds have much to learn from each other. For example, China has provided helpful concepts that support successful ageing: Tai Chi is now recognised as one of the most useful forms of exercise to prevent falls in later life and has been promoted in Ireland by Go For Life, the Government-funded programme for fitness in later life. Equally, outdoor fitness gyms in public parks is an age-friendly Chinese concept that is being adopted across Europe, from Berlin to our own Summerhill, Co Meath, most recently.

The St Gallen forum had a particular focus on older workers and the economic opportunities of the "silver market", but also sessions on design, innovations, pension systems, migration, healthcare and elder abuse.

An over-riding theme was that of fortune favouring the prepared: advances in our understanding of ageing means that retuning the system towards older people can benefit workers, employers and society.

Indeed, it is not just a question of "making do" with older workers: employers are belatedly recognising the large number of gerontological studies showing the added worth of older workers. This was best illustrated by the fact that 100 major companies in Germany, representing 5 per cent of economic activity, have signed up to a plan promoting age-friendly policies, the German Demographic Network (www.demographie-netzwerk. de). Such policies include life-long learning and reviews of human resources and occupational health policies, but also, at a higher level, a commitment to work with government and scientists of ageing on research and innovation for an ageing society.

A more sobering theme was the relatively slow pace of adoption of the UN Madrid Action Plan on Ageing, a very practical blueprint for adapting our societies to the new model of population ageing.

Built on the foundations of a global perspective, modern ageing sciences and a remarkable consensus, this plan was adopted by the UN in 2002. Unfortunately, although many countries in both the developed and developing world have responded to the action plan by formulating national plans for ageing, the Irish Government has not yet undertaken such a response. This is doubly disappointing: not only are we all diminished by a society that is not planned to be inclusive of all ages, but given Ireland's active role in globalisation and development issues, we are also failing to give leadership and example where it is needed.

Even in purely economic terms, successful economies of the future will be those that are adapted to the new demography. We can only hope that the new Office for Older People will remedy this deficit.

Ireland has the capabilities and the expertise: can we follow the lead of Mary Robinson in translating this into a sustainable vision of a country that both welcomes and supports national, regional and global ageing?

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Prof Desmond O'Neill is president-elect of the European Union Geriatric Medicine Society; www.ageandknowledge.ie"