Active Ageing: A well-worthy objective

Judith Davey

I am pleased to see more and more attempts to put a positive slant on population ageing and to counteract negative views of this inexorable trend. Hopefully, we are moving away from such depictions as ‘age-quake’, “cataclysm”, “threat, ‘burden’ and ‘grey tsunami’.  And a quote from a journalist:

The ramifications (of ageing) could be serious as the elderly become an additional burden to the traditional scourges of poverty and disease.

A variety of terms has appeared in a more positive discussion about population ageing, what it means, and its implications. We hear about “healthy” “positive”, “successful”, productive”, “active” ageing, and so on. My favourite is active ageing.

The ‘Active Aging’ concept emerged during the International Year of Older Persons (1999). It brings together aspects of health, participation, and independence, recognising that the knowledge and wisdom which older people will be invaluable if they are given opportunities to participate and to remain active. It has been applied in practice, with considerable success, through the Age-Friendly Cities and Communities movement.

In 2018 the European Commission defined active ageing as – ‘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 – “ageing well” – is the title of the National Science Challenge research programme, which started in 2013 and is producing relevant and useful findings. All these phrases are intended to counteract the “deficit” model of ageing, which implies inevitable and uncorrected physical and mental decline with age.

In my optimism, I believe that the more active view of ageing fits well with the outlook of the generations currently entering later life (however we want to define it in terms of age). The epithet “baby boomers” used to be a demographic term, but it has recently been used negatively to foment intergenerational conflict. It is far too stereotypical – baby boomers are not all the same. But, on average, they are better educated than preceding generations of older people. 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, which supports the active ageing concept.

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. It is not enough to keep 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.

A successful strategy to promote Active Ageing needs to bring together wider domains, including wellbeing, social and economic 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. And to contribute generativity, which I described in a 2020 post. 

But we cannot ignore socio-economic, socio-political, and environmental factors which affect the context 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 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 and experiences. We often over-generalise about older people, their characteristics, and their life experiences.

But Active Ageing can be criticised

The Active Ageing model can become somewhat coercive, with high expectations and 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 not in the paid labour force for whatever reason, stigmatising them as ‘non-active’. This devalues their contribution as volunteers, carers, and grandparents, and overlooks the aspect of choice – people may prefer not to be in paid work.

Active Ageing (in some definitions) may be unattainable for a large group of older people. 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 activity, productivity, and independence.

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.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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