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International Day of Older Persons Initiative

1 October 2020

The first day of October 2020 marks the 30th year of International Day of Older Persons - a United Nations initiative, encouraging recognition of older members of our community as well as those who support and care for them. With the overarching message ‘leave no one behind’, one of the main themes this year recognises the importance of the role of the health and care workforce in maintaining and improving the health of older people.

The challenges during the past few months amid the global pandemic has highlighted the essential need for care however, for many, the immediate focus has been squarely on health.  This day of awareness and celebration, reminds us that it’s not simply about ensuring older people have access to a decent standard of living, through housing and healthcare; it’s also about empowering people with new opportunities to enable them to stay meaningfully engaged, and providing support to give them the ability to thrive, pursue their passions and a chosen lifestyle. This often means looking after grandchildren and caring for other family members, or working and volunteering within the community.

That’s what we mean when we say ‘leave no one behind’.

For those working in the sector, we are all too aware that historically, older people have often been marginalised and, in some cases, made to feel invisible. The International Day of Older Persons therefore gives us all the opportunity to highlight the important contributions older people continue to make to our society. And it helps to raise awareness of the challenges facing those ageing in today’s world.

Before the global pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated 2020 – 2030 as the Decade of Healthy Ageing. In consultation with a wide variety of experts and key stakeholders around the world, it drew up 10 priorities to provide concrete actions that are needed to achieve the objectives of the WHO Global strategy and action plan on ageing and health.

These priorities include ensuring the human resources necessary for integrated care and making the economic case for investment in healthy ageingOther points covered include aligning health systems to the needs of older people and undertaking a global campaign to combat ageism.

All salient points but how do we balance this 10-point plan when living in a world currently grappling with the effects of a global pandemic and, moreover, the rise in age discrimination as a direct result of this crisis?

Interestingly, the concept of ageing has framed much of the recent political debate, with society questioning the value of an older person’s life. If you consider part of the population was locked down to protect mainly the wellbeing of vulnerable people including those over the age of 70, we are seeing a shift in society’s perceptions of the older members of our community.

The WHO’s director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, accused some countries of seeing old people as “less worthy”.  Furthermore, generally, both in social media and in the UK press we have seen an increase in discriminatory attitudes towards older people during the past few months; according to the report funded by UK Economic and Social Research Council and published in The Lancet, 35 per cent of British people have experienced age discrimination (or ageism). The Royal Society for Public Health’s report That Age Old Question highlights the serious effects of this on health:

  • Ageist attitudes harm older people as they lead to direct age-based discrimination – which can promote social exclusion, impact on mental health, and affect wider determinants of health like employment.
  • Ageist attitudes also harm individuals who, as they grow older, begin to apply negative age stereotypes to themselves. Previous research has shown that those with more negative attitudes to ageing live on average 7.5 years less than those with more positive attitudes to ageing.
  • There is now a growing body of research evidencing the real-life consequences that negative attitudes to ageing have on individual health outcomes such as memory loss, physical function, and even the risk of developing dementia.

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed many less than pretty aspects of society, including the general public’s negative perceptions of older people, many of whom would take great offence at being classed as ‘vulnerable’. Critically, it has placed a spotlight on carers and the underfunded sector in which they work. The allocation of half a billion pounds of funding, (Adult Social Care: Covid-19 Winter Plan), to be used to help protect care home residents and staff through winter may not have been granted had we not faced this current crisis.

A light has been cast on the current policies, which desperately need reviewing. It has also highlighted the need for countries to make more investment in quality long-term care for those who need it. This in turn should help to improve wellbeing and reduce fatalities.

For us in the sector, we know without doubt that older people carry the collective wisdom of our society, they are valued and valuable members of our communities - we need to hear the voices of our older people as well as those who work and care for them to identify and understand how they can best be supported in today’s world.

Kathy Roberts

Chair, Care Provider Alliance