October 1st marked the International Day of Older Persons. Senior citizens (aged 65+) are the fastest-growing demographic in many countries around the world, and for the first time ever, more Canadians are over the age of 65 than under the age of 15. The UK reports a similar number, with more people over the State Pension age than children. This “coming of age” should be recognized as a true achievement – a testament to the medical and lifestyle advances of the last century. Yet, this quickly-growing demographic brings a number of societal challenges with it. As a result of a large aging population worldwide, global researchers and government officials are designing comprehensive strategies and programs to ensure the wellbeing and engagement of its senior citizens.
There are many challenges facing governments, public and private sector organizations as they respond and adapt to an aging population. A greater number of senior citizens may lead to higher public health care spending, and governments will need to provide better support to caregivers and nurses. Community infrastructure will also be affected by an aging population, as housing, transportation and accessibility factors will need to be re-examined. The growth may even take a toll on the intergenerational family relationship, as the “sandwich generation” – those providing care to both children and parents at the same time – feel increased pressure and stress in response to social duties.
Perhaps, though, one of the most important factors to bear in mind when considering the social and economic consequences of aging is the need for community engagement and social connectedness among seniors. Those over 65 are often retired, finding themselves without a work community, and may have also lost friends or spouses because of death and illness. Family members may not live close by, and depending on their living arrangements, opportunities for social connections may not be easily available. These factors have a direct impact on mental health, and we have learned through SocialConnectedness.org that a strong community plays a fundamental role in human wellbeing.
Not only is social connection important for the emotional well-being of senior citizens, but it can also be beneficial to their physical health. The Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Centre in Chicago published a study which found seniors who were highly social had a 70% lower rate of cognitive decline (dementia and alzheimer’s) than their less social peers. Social connectedness in seniors even has a direct, positive influence on health-seeking behaviour: Epidemiologist Yvonne Michael from Drexel University found that in neighbourhoods with a strong sense of community and friendship, adults were 10-22% more likely to undergo cancer screenings – which could ultimately lead to early detection and treatment.
As a result of these issues, comprehensive government plans and strategies are necessary in ensuring the overall wellbeing of aging populations around the world, and many countries are making important strides in recognizing and addressing the potential problems facing their senior citizens.
Brisbane, Australia developed a Seniors Strategy 2012-2017 to not only celebrate the important contribution seniors make, but to promote inclusive city-wide practices for strengthening social connectedness and accessibility in its aging population. The Department of Work and Pensions in the UK has also developed a number of policies aimed at encouraging senior inclusivity. Their Digital Strategy takes into consideration programs for digital competence, and thus, connectedness, for its older population. Last year, the UK’s Centre for Ageing Better developed an extensive research report, Later Life in 2015, which identified, and made recommendations for the three important factors of a positive later life: “health, financial security and social connections.”
The South African government has also implemented some important events to foster engagement and inclusion in its senior population. In 2014, the country held a National Older Persons Golden Games, hosted in partnership with Sports and Recreation South Africa. This sporting event for seniors involved activities such as duck walk competitions, dress-up races, and soccer. The games took place at the Mbombela Stadium in Mpumalanga, and was opened by South Africa’s Minister of Social Development. In addition, South Africa holds an annual Older Persons’ Parliament to give its senior citizens “the opportunity to engage with the executive on critical issues affecting their lives.”
Canada is also actively developing plans to encourage the wellness of its senior population. The National Senior Strategy, an online initiative, is “conceived as a way to provide an evidence-based view on how to consider the concepts that could and should be considered and included in a national approach.” The strategy is an effective way to gather the latest evidence and concerns surrounding Canada’s aging population, compare it with the strategies of other countries, and make government- and public sector-level recommendations for handling the social and economic consequences of this fast growing demographic.
Another initiative which serves to promote the wellbeing of senior citizens is the Age-Friendly Cities and Communities (AFC) plan, advanced by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO provides a free guide for communities around the world to learn about 8 domains that can be addressed to strengthen senior inclusion and contribution to community life. As more seniors decide to remain in their homes (“aging-in-place”), an AFC plan will “encourage active aging by optimizing opportunities for health, participation, and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age.” For example, an effective AFC is designed so that seniors are easily able to partake in accessible activities, such as visiting cultural institutions, taking courses or volunteering. To date, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has provided funding towards developing AFCs across the country.
The world’s policy-makers must be fully aware of the issues facing senior citizens and the benefits of improving their social connectedness and inclusion. Australia, the UK, South Africa and Canada are just some of the many countries devoted to enhancing the lives of their respective senior populations. There are certainly a number challenges on the horizon, but committing resources to the development and implementation of national engagement strategies and programs will not only acknowledge, but celebrate the lives and significant contributions made by this important generation.