My interest in ageing is long-standing – I was very close to my grandparents throughout my childhood, and was always struck by their wisdom, perspective and how much knowledge they had acquired over their lifetime. Of course, the number of people aged 80 years or older will have almost quadrupled between the years 2000 and 2050 to 395 million, and so more children will know their grandparents and great-grandparents.
After graduating, I spent time working in South America and the Caribbean, particularly Jamaica, arriving not long after Hurricane Gilbert and subsequent tropical storms had devastated large parts of the island. The older women of the community I was living with were particularly impressive in their resilience, with positive attitudes to rebuilding infrastructure and strengthening communities for the future. Their focus and energy stayed with me and cemented my interest in working on healthy ageing.
My early experience of ageing in low-and middle-income countries remains very relevant as they will experience the most rapid and dramatic demographic change. It took more than a century for France’s population of over-65s to double, yet it will take less than 25 years for countries such as China and Brazil to experience the same growth.
I had no intention of being an academic. But I saw a job advert to work with a professor who had written a really thought-provoking book on ageing that I had read while at university. I applied as I was curious to meet him, and the rest, as they say, is history. Over the last 20 years, I have been based in Europe’s largest research institute on ageing and my work has spanned an incredibly diverse range of topics and disciplines – from health to housing, transport and digital technology, social inclusion and sustainability. Approaches to successful ageing demand a multi-disciplinary approach, and appreciation of global and local cultural and socio-economic contexts and drivers. Geographical skills and understanding have been fundamental to every project I’ve been involved in.
I’ve been very fortunate to work with inspirational colleagues, particularly Professors Tom Kirkwood and Jim Edwardson, both former directors of Newcastle University Institute for Ageing. They pioneered positive approaches to ageing, dispelling many myths, assumptions and stereotypes that persist about older people, and stressed the opportunities associated with ageing, along with the importance of looking at ageing across the life course, rather than ageing just being about oldness per se. Great inequalities persist, but in Europe and the US, the over-55s are the wealthiest demographic, spending an estimated £15trillion by 2020. This is changing just about every aspect of society.
The members of VOICE are just a joy to work with. Thousands of citizens from across the UK, and increasingly internationally, enthusiastically contribute their insights about what is needed and possible to meet the challenge of global population ageing. People are from all walks of life, and backgrounds, who have huge collective experience both from their working lives and lived experience. As a growing community, VOICE members are creative and ambitious about what can be achieved, and their energy and commitment are extraordinary. What is striking is their appetite to learn about shared experiences of ageing from different cultures and the interconnectedness of places and communities in which we live and work.
We urgently need to innovate, to think differently about how we deal with this unprecedented demographic transition, the choices we make for managing this now and in the future. But I am convinced that human resilience and capacity to innovate and adapt will mean that we will develop sustainable approaches and creative solutions that will enable individuals to live both longer and healthier lives, and for societies to reap the benefits. Directly empowering citizens and harnessing their mental capital and experience is key to our collective success.
This was published in the June 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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