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Column We need to make our society and cities age-friendly

Let’s move on from the twentieth century, where older people were thought of as dependents. Older people can – and must — contribute to economic growth, writes Michael Hodin.

WHEN G8 LEADERS met last week in Belfast to discuss how to stimulate economic growth and improve fiscal health, they would have been wise to look southward towards Dublin. In the Irish capital, the European Union had just held the “EU Summit on Active and Healthy Ageing: An Action Agenda for Europe’s Cities and Communities” in order to set an agenda for transforming Europe’s cities and communities to becoming “age-friendly.”

An age-friendly Europe is one that fosters and enables the ongoing participation of all citizens, especially as we age, into social and economic life. It is essential to the fiscal and economic questions G8 leaders are trying to answer. If their meeting in Northern Ireland failed to account for the integral role that age-friendly development must play in the 21st century economy, their talks will have come up short.

As Maire Geoghegan-Quinn declared at the Dublin Summit, aging is “a period of life with the potential to be as rich, rewarding and productive as any other.”

Longevity and low birth rates

This, indeed, is the central challenge of our 21st century as all populations across Europe, and globally, shift the proportion of old to young in light of longevity and low birth rates.  The question, of course, is figuring how to reach this potential in ways that are not only fiscally sustainable, but also drive economic growth for our time the way earlier models did in earlier demographic constructions

The EU Summit’s Dublin Declaration provides a part of the answer. The Declaration, signed by over 70 cities and counties from across Ireland and the rest of Europe, sets the goal of creating an age-friendly Europe by 2020, and it establishes the partnerships and planning instruments to make this goal a reality. It’s a true milestone in the creation of an age-friendly Europe, and one day soon we may look back at the Declaration as the turning point that launched Europe into its next wave of economic growth.

But for the Dublin Declaration to drive economic growth, the age-friendly development that follows must aim for two separate goals.

Older people can – and must — contribute to economic growth

First, age-friendly development needs to position the over-55 population to remain in the workforce and contribute to economic growth. By 2020, roughly one in every five Europeans will be over 55, and this ratio will continue to tilt even more dramatically as the century progresses.

It is a wonderful miracle 20th century science, medicine and health has bequeathed us where life expectancy in the EU continues to steadily climb. Already the highest in the world, one in three children born today will live to celebrate their 100th birthday.  But there are consequences, which will surely affect matters of core fiscal, health and urban public policy.

By enabling cities to become age-friendly today, Europe will be building the infrastructure that is needed both to solve immediate and long-term economic challenges. If our cities and our communities do not enable older adults to work and travel as well as receive health and other essential services, then older adults are effectively marginalised and forced into roles of dependency and disability.

Let’s move on from the twentieth century, where older people were thought of as dependents

This was the insight of the World Health Organisation’s Age-Friendly Cities programme and its director, John Beard. According to Dr Beard, “In an age-friendly world, you don’t just live longer; those extra years are healthy ones that enable ongoing participation.” This participation is the foundation for 21st century success. And it is in stark contrast to 20th century culture where one is thought to be dependent and/or disabled as they reach beyond 60.

Second, age-friendly development must set up the right kinds of care programmes for those who need it the most. Too often, the cities and communities we live in do not provide those in need with adequate services and support. Recent research shows that social isolation is very common among the elderly, and is extremely deleterious for physical and mental well-being. As chronic diseases rise among older adults, isolation too often follows. Again, our 21st century must transform to our own demographic realities that profoundly differ from the 20th century.

One solution is to move long-term care into homes and communities that provide essential services while nurturing social inclusion. There is some very exciting work being done in this area, driven largely by technological innovation.

The OPRAH initiative

For instance, Irish Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Phil Hogan TD noted at the Summit that his home of Kilkenny is leading the roll-out the OPRAH initiative, a new programme bringing together multiple stakeholders to enable more older people to stay living in their own homes.  The Dublin Declaration will be a success if it can encourage city and community leaders across Europe to work in this direction. Not only can it create better lives for the elderly, but it can reduce expenses and minimise the amount of time that family members dedicate to informal caregiving activities. Efficient, effective and more humane care is as much for the children as the elderly, and to that end, we must re-think and re-imagine the care continuum to include personal and personalised care at home.

Last week, it was the G8 Summit in Belfast that gained the lion’s share of the attention. But perhaps the real and best conversations about stimulating economic growth, improving fiscal health and adding value to our very lives were happening 100 miles to the south. The key to economic success in the near- and long-term is creating an age-friendly world that gives all citizens new opportunities and pathways for aging in this new century.

Mike Hodin is the Executive Director of the Global Coalition on Ageing.

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