Is volunteering the secret to health in older years?

Tilda volunteers celebrate 10 years and are enjoying the process

Some  650 of  the 8,504 people aged 50 and over who have been participating in the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda) gathered to celebrate TIlda’s first 10 Years at Trinity College Dublin.  Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Some 650 of the 8,504 people aged 50 and over who have been participating in the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda) gathered to celebrate TIlda’s first 10 Years at Trinity College Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

It was an unusual sight – a lecture theatre in Trinity College Dublin brimful of silver-haired men and women in their 60s, 70s and 80s. But, perhaps, even more striking was the fact that so many in this group of 600 looked lively, healthy and happy.

Here to celebrate 10 years of volunteering for research into ageing, it makes you wonder if the act of volunteering to give personal information freely about your life is good for your health.

Monica Smith (81) and her husband Joe (78) have come from Clontarf in Dublin to be at the event. They both agree that the advantages of being part of the study outweigh any possible disadvantages. “I feel that I have done a lot of different tests that I might not have done otherwise,” says Monica Smith. “The feedback on the research and the benefit to other people is what kept us continuing with the tests,” says Joe Smith.

The participants in The Irish Longitudinal Study of Ageing (Tilda) were visited in their homes every two years over the past 10 years. As well as undergoing blood pressure and walking checks, they were also asked questions to check their cognitive skills and mental health. All the data from Tilda is made anonymous so volunteers can’t be identified.

Sattie Sharkey (68) says she decided to volunteer for Tilda because she tended to fall. “I thought they might be able to help me. Falls are very physically debilitating. They also affect your confidence which is the hardest part of it,” says Sharkey, who subsequently had surgery to remove a tumour at the back of her head which was causing her instability.

“I’m very happy and proud to be here and to be part of this study. It’s important to participate in your own recovery and do things that keep you stronger,” she says.

Michael Barry (78) and his wife Helen (72) have come from their home in Limerick to join the celebrations. “It’s been interesting. You feel good about doing the tests. My husband asked me to come along and volunteer with him. I’m never sick. We walk four miles every day. We eat well. I don’t take any medication,” says Helen Barry.

Michael Barry had open heart surgery three years ago, following the discovery of three blocked arteries. “I didn’t have any symptoms. In fact, I thought something else was wrong with my breathing. We always have medical examinations before we go to Florida for the winter,” sayss Barry, who worked in the United States for years before retiring to Ireland.

Regarding Tilda, he says it’s “terrific” to be part of the study. “They really take care of you and everyone is very professional and diplomatic. Doing the tests makes you aware of the possible deterioration in the brain and what you can do about it. I think that being interested and learning is the most important thing you can do.”

Brendan Hudson (68) from Ballinteer, Dublin has been involved since the start of Tilda. While he’s happy to participate, he says he’d like more personal feedback. The researcher reassures him that his GP gets his results and if there was something wrong, he would be informed directly by his GP.

Una McArdle (81) has been a Tilda volunteer for about six years. “It’s wonderful. I’ve learnt a lot more about ageing and how older people can take care of themselves. I play golf but I should walk more. I’m outgoing and I think I’m still 21,” she says with a grin.

TILDA - what it is all about:

The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda) is the largest study ever carried out in Ireland on ageing. When it started in 2006, it was also the first study of its kind in the world. Using health, social and financial information from more than 8,000 people aged 50 and over, it gathers data on everything from blood pressure to walking speeds to the financial, physical and psychological impact of retirement.

The research findings are used to influence public health policy in everything from better health screenings, disease awareness campaigns and the urban environment. To date, these have included more blood pressure monitoring, longer time for crossing the road at traffic lights and better awareness of financial pressures on older people. Researchers have also discovered that older people make up the largest numbers of volunteers and informal care givers in Irish society.

Prof Rose Anne Kenny is the principal investigator with Tilda. “We all have an extended lifespan now – men will live to 79 on average and women to 83. The saying, you are as young as you feel is true as perception of ageing has a significant influence on health and quality of life.

“We’ve found that life gets better as you move between 50 and 78, after which, it starts to dip. The challenge is for these [later] years to be healthy and happy and not [marred] by disability.”

One of the most successful offshoots of Tilda is the free online course, Strategies for Successful Ageing which, to date, has reached more than 10,000 social media learners. As well as sharing the data with the Government, the Economic and Social Research Institute and 150 universities around the world, Tilda researchers now plan to give personal feedback to participants.

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