Diver­sity must in­clude the el­derly

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Des O’Neill

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.

De­sign for all

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.

In­ter­gen­er­a­tional learn­ing

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.

‘‘ 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

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

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