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The answer to this question is obviously yes and I wonder how much we will have progressed by this time next year. The main problem still seems to be the lack of involvement of older people. I firmly believe that we will never make worthwhile progress until research is not just done on older people but with older people. We older people seem to be treated like aliens, living on the same planet but with no communication between us. The sad part is that researchers don’t seem to realise that later in their lives they too will join the aliens and be outcasts!

The other evening I happened to stumble on a TV program discussing the latest research on ageing, with the presenter herself an elderly journalist in her 70’s. How refreshing. She could, and did, ask all the questions older people have on this topic. The program included long-running research such as the nun’s study as well as more recent work such as the effect of exercise comparing walking with table tennis. The latter created a problem as it was difficult to isolate the effect of the physical activity and the socialising that accompanied it. More recent work such as the effect on the brain of zapping US soldiers whilst using computers and the effect of injecting older mice with blood from younger mice was also shown. I’m not sure how practical these procedures would be for older people no matter how beneficial! At least we could find out through this TV program what is going on.

To me the big weakness of the present situation is its apparent lack of practicality. Research tends to be on the ageing brain or on the ageing body with no acknowledgement that the two are connected. We are beginning to realise how widespread depression is in the general community and how life threatening this is and how it affects almost every aspect of life, yet with older people we don’t even seem to be off the ground looking at this aspect of ageing. The ‘alien’ viewpoint seems to be that these people are going to die anyway so why worry? Nobody seems to look on older people as a huge resource if allowed to function to the best of their ability, both mentally and physically.

No where is this more visible than facing another year with conferences on ageing without the ageing! Many, if not most, conferences give cost reductions to student participants but not retirees. The message is that students, with no experience of ageing, are more valuable participants than the real experts, older people themselves. Every year I hope that the situation will change but every year the ‘alien’ culture continues.

I don’t think that the big breakthrough in research into ageing will occur until researchers take their blinkers off and see older people as a valuable resource in many aspects of life, and abandon their current ‘alien’ attitude. For any researcher who really wants to make their mark the door is ready to be opened.

 

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This was held in Brisbane, Australia, last week and seemed to attract a lot of participants but I was again disappointed that this bi-annual event didn’t attract more older people. As I’ve mentioned before, 100 years ago there were conferences on women’s issues, run by men, with male speakers and male audiences with a few token women in the audience. Such conferences would be laughed at today and not taken seriously. Why can’t people who organise conferences on ageing see the parallels and learn from them? I’d like to think that this won’t be too far into the future but I haven’t noticed any change so far. I did point out in the conference opening session that I was tired of reading research that was inaccurate because older people hadn’t been involved. The guest speaker made the point that in a recent policy document put out by his organisation they had recommended this. I’m not holding my breath for a world-wide recognition of the value of older people, although I’d be surprised if we have to wait until the next century for it to become the norm.

It concerns me that when people retire at 65, usually because they are bored with their jobs, or feel that their talents are not recognised, or if they are forced into retirement, then a growing number of them are likely to live for another 40 years and filling this time becomes a problem. They lose their self-respect, and suicide, particularly among men, becomes an issue. This is likely to affect more women in future as it becomes more accepted that they too are likely to have careers before retirement.

As Australia heads towards an election both major parties are worried about national debt and neither feel that we are likely to get on top of it for many years. This leads me to question why we don’t take steps to utilise the talents, skill, knowledge and experience older people have. One of the highlights of the IFA conference to me was the presentation by Peter Balan which suggested support be given to build an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem to encourage senior entrepreneurship. The assumption by politicians that only young people have ideas is a sad reflection on the intelligence of those in power. With all our experience and knowledge obviously there are plenty of older people who have entrepreneurial ideas. Why then does the rest of society, particularly politicians and researchers, resign us to a dependency role, and then complain about the cost of providing for us? A better alternative would be to encourage, and promote, entrepreneurship for all those, of all ages, with ideas.

Australia, and many other countries, at least have some idea of the human approach. On the last day of the conference I met a couple of women from Sri Lanka and Jamaica. Knowing that they would have a shorter life span than in developed countries, I asked what their pension age was. They both said 60 but one pointed out that only public servants qualified for a pension. The rest have to rely on their families, or go begging on the streets.

The world has a long way to go before it realises the value of its senior citizens.