Ageing on the whole is “a good thing” for the world, and governments should not see it as a “threat”, Dr Paul Ong, Technical Officer, Innovation for Healthy Ageing at the World Health Organisation, tells GovInsider.
Ong believes that there’s a need to shift current perceptions of ageing as a burden to society – being old is, in fact, a sign of “successful development,” he says. “It means that a majority of people are now living to a much older age.”
“Fertility rates have dropped because our babies are now surviving, rather than families having lots and lots of babies to ensure that they have a few children who make it to adulthood,” Ong continues. “We now have this opportunity to enjoy the life that I think all human beings deserve.”
Shifting perceptions of ageing
With a 2015 report on ageing and health, WHO wants to encourage governments to tackle ageism in three ways. First, they must reorient the language surrounding ageing. “Shifting the language from viewing ageing as essentially a cost to society to something that needs investing in, is one of the key actions you need to take.”
Secondly, governments need to reorient healthcare systems to be more age-friendly, with greater focus on chronic disease management. Ong notes that in the early development stage of societies, contemporary healthcare systems were developed to treat individual diseases and acute medical episodes. As populations age, chronic illnesses become the norm, and this presents a challenge for the healthcare systems of today.
“We know from studies in Sweden and Australia that by the time people are 70 or 75, nearing 80, they will have multiple chronic illnesses,” shares Ong. “Tackling chronic illnesses just simply as individual diseases, trying to cure these things – and many of them are not exactly curable – it’s not the most useful approach.”
Governments then need to adopt an approach where they can best manage these “baskets” of chronic conditions, enabling the elderly to be active as much as possible. “Just because I have arthritic pain does not mean that going to the church, temple or mosque is not important me.”
“Tackling chronic illnesses just simply as individual diseases… it’s not the most useful approach.”
Age-inclusive environments for the future
Finally, governments need to look beyond encouraging the population to embrace healthy ageing – it is time that the environments the elderly live in also reflect age inclusivity. In European cities like Geneva, trams and buses have steps that can be lowered, and the city boasts ramps and walkways that enable wheelchair-bound citizens to get around. “In Japan, even the ancient castles and monuments have lifts so that older people basically can enjoy these icons of cultural heritage,” Ong says.
Age-inclusive design, he adds, is not just about older people – it’s also about “encouraging important technology” that will compel both creative and economic growth, and spur new industries in the future. “In the same way that a self-driving car is a very interesting piece of technology, it is actually good for older people, and potentially a very important part of age-friendly technology and environments,” Ong notes.
For all of these key factors to come together, governments must remember that ageing is a “multi-sectorial” issue, Ong notes. After all, environments are made up of multiple sectors, whether that be sanitation or transportation, agriculture, and governments will need to look at how these intersect together so that they can best design environments for the elderly.
“Like any other person, older people need to have decent nutrition, live in sanitary environments, and get around – just that specifically in each of these areas, they have more challenges that need to be attended to,” Ong concludes.
Soon, the future could very well bring driverless cars and specially-equipped trams that make our cities a little bit friendlier for the silver generation.
Image from Dr Paul Ong’s LinkedIn page