Reimagining Ageing Around the Globe

By Katie Smith Sloan

I recently had the privilege of representing the Global Ageing Network and LeadingAge at a conference in England sponsored by National Care Forum, an association of nonprofit care providers in England and CommonAge, advancing issues of ageing in Commonwealth countries. It was a unique gathering of people from 23 countries on 5 continents. Humbling and eye-opening only begins to describe the experience.

We are part of a world that is rapidly ageing. For some countries, like Japan, they are already there with 27% of people over the age of 65. In contrast, Uganda and most of sub-Saharan Africa is young and won’t achieve Japan’s status for decades. The advantage for Uganda and its fellow young countries is the opportunity to advocate and implement practices now that influence how people grow older in years to come. They can initiate practices, encourage behavior and design systems that will influence the ageing process—at an earlier stage.

Countries considered young today can learn from—and not repeat—the mistakes of the western world and can benefit from all that we have learned and aspired to over the years: ensuring dignity, empowering staff, respecting basic human rights, and many other essential developments. They don’t have to discover the notion of person-centered or driven care, as we have. These discoveries have already been made for them. This jump-start might result in being able to give older adults the freedom to live lives that prior generations could never have imagined.

And yet, the reality is not always so rosy.

Many of these young countries are fortunate to have compassionate and determined advocates, despite being severely constrained by a lack of resources and training. Francis Njuakom Nchii, leader of a small community-based organization in Cameroon, wisely noted that change happens when people come together—at the village level, the national level, and across the globe. He subscribes to the firm belief that suffering breeds character and character breeds responsibility. I know that other leaders from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, South Africa, India, and Bangladesh would concur wholeheartedly. They carry that weight of responsibility on their shoulders every day. And they do so because they run up against deeply rooted ageist attitudes as they try to change policies and systems that would enable people to live a better life as they grow older. Imagine trying to change conventional wisdom that dementia is a form of witchcraft and those with dementia need to be isolated. I so admire their courage and commitment.

Dr. George Leeson, director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, suggested that we are handicapped by how we think about ageing by 3 institutional structures that have emerged over time:

  • Almshouses gave us a space classification
  • Pensions gave us an age classification.
  • Geriatric medicine gave us a disease classification.

We have been saddled with those structures for decades and, I would argue, they have enabled attitudes, policies, and practices that reinforce a negative view of ageing. Not an attitude that celebrates age or that views age as a stage of life, respecting experiences and wisdom that come from a long life.

LeadingAge has the privilege of manageing and driving the growth of the Global Ageing Network (formerly IAHSA). We now have a footprint in 85 countries. It is nothing short of humbling to be with leaders from other countries as we consider together what it means to live in societies facing this seismic demographic shift.

Regardless of the size and pace of growth of a countries’ older population, the fact is that we are all living longer. Our collective challenge is to ensure that the quality of our lives matches the extension of our lives. We can only meet this challenge by considering the life course, as the World Health Organization describes it, and ridding ourselves of the institutional structures that have constrained our thinking and enabled the scourge of ageism.

I look forward to the next time I connect with my international colleagues to continue crucial conversations about reimagining the future of ageing around the globe.