A variety of terms is bandied about when people try to put a positive slant on population ageing, what it means and its implications. We hear about “healthy” “positive”, “successful”, “productive”, “active ageing and so on. The one I like best is active ageing. But what does it mean? And, if it is a good thing, what can be done to make it a reality?
The ‘Active Aging’ concept emerged during the International Year of Older Persons (1999). The concept brings together aspects of health, participation, and independence, recognising the knowledge and wisdom which older people can contribute if they are given opportunities to participate and hence to remain active . One way it has been applied in practice has been the Age-Friendly Cities and Communities movement, which I have talked about in earlier blogs. The Age-Friendly movement is linked with active citizenship – another aspect of active ageing.
I like the definition of Active Aging given by the European Commission (2018) – ‘helping people stay in charge of their own lives for as long as possible as they age, and, where possible, to contribute to the economy and society’. A shorter definition is “ageing well”, which is the title of the National Science Challenge research programme, which started in 2013 and is now well under way.
All these phrases are intended to counteract the “deficit” model of ageing, which implies inevitable and uncorrected physical and mental decline with age. This goes alongside my bugbear – ‘retirement” as a negative term for later life.
The more active view of ageing fits well with the outlook of the generations which are now entering later life (however we want to define it in terms of age). The epithet of “baby boomers” is too stereotypical – they are not all the same. But , on average, they are better educated than any other preceding generations. Many have fought against racism, homophobia, and authoritarianism, and championed women’s rights, citizen empowerment, and sexual freedom. Even if they have not fought, they have felt the effects of fundamental social and economic change.
So, what is needed to promote Active Ageing?
Active Aging was defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “the process of optimizing opportunities for physical, social, and mental well-being throughout the life course” i.e. developing the full potential of individuals of all ages. This must entail a very wide scope of action. If the emphasis is only on one aspect of life, such as health (Healthy Ageing) or economic participation (Productive Ageing), as has been the case in some policy initiatives, there is the danger of stereotypes, and prejudices about ageing and older people.
A successful strategy to promote Active Ageing needs to bring together wider domains, including wellbeing, social participation and citizenship. Its aims should be to promote lifelong learning, working longer, “retiring” later, and continuing to be active in later life, engaging in activities to promote skills and maintain health. Preferably this should apply well before “old age” sets in.
But we cannot ignore socio-economic, socio-political, and environmental factors which affect the environment in which people age. Initiatives to promote Active Ageing, in the way I have defined it, should also recognise that achieving this goal is influenced by environmental, economic, cultural, and social conditions which provide opportunities and resources or create barriers for older people. The physical and built environments are of great importance in determining people’s level of (in)dependency. There are also personal determinants – individual biological, psychological, and behavioural conditions of aging people. We often over-generalise about older people, their characteristics and the life experiences.
At the same time, older people themselves can, and should be supported to, play a crucial role in influencing, improving and creating the conditions that favour their ageing process and improve their well-being.
But Active Ageing can be criticised
The Active Ageing model can become coercive, with high expectations and high ideals being placed on older people who may not be able to achieve them because of personal circumstances in terms of health, educational level, or income. The prospect of decline cannot be totally eradicated. Sky-diving at age 99 is not a realistic ideal for all!
An emphasis on remaining economically active may exclude people who are out of the labour force for whatever reason, stigmatising them as ‘non-active’. This devalues the contribution of older people as volunteers and carers and overlooks the aspect of choice – people may prefer not to be in paid work.
The argument is that Active Ageing (in some definitions) may be unattainable for a large group of society, and an emphasis on this approach may contribute to social discrimination and the exclusion of the oldest-old, as well as those vulnerable, fragile, and dependent, who do not meet the criteria in terms of health, independence, productivity, and activity.
So, however much we (and I) like the idea of Active Ageing, we must be careful of how it is defined and brought into policy and practice. It can be a good thing so long as it recognises diversity at the individual and contextual levels.
 This blog draws on a recent article – Elena del Barrio, Sara Marsillas , Tine Buffel, An-Sofie Smetcoren and Mayte Sancho (2018) From Active Aging to Active Citizenship: The Role of (Age) Friendliness. Soc. Sci. Vol.7(8), p.134.