A paradox of our times is that we are living in ageing societies, but the public sphere seems to give relatively less importance to issues concerning the elderly. In previous articles in this newspaper, I wrote about challenges related to today’s and tomorrow’s pensions: today I want to focus on the concept of ageing in relation to social policy.
Very often we relate ageing to old age rather than to a life course process. We associate old age with increased public expenditure, healthcare issues, dependency on other persons and end of life. Isn’t it strange that in a society which increasingly focuses on the individual, less importance is being given to the individual merits of every elderly person? These may include one’s experience, knowledge, wisdom, contribution to others and so forth.
I myself regularly meet so many elderly persons who are willing to contribute to society, for example through voluntary work. Is society listening to their voices? Sometimes it does, but I often get the feeling that elderly persons do not get the respect they deserve.
Social policy can play a major role for healthy ageing and for increased respect towards the elderly. We require more policies that work as a trampoline to empower people during their life course rather than disempowering and impersonal bureaucratic hurdles that act ‘after the event’. Social policy should constantly equip each individual for the opportunities and risks she or he encounters.
Malta requires much more investment to promote active ageing. We need to ensure that physical exercise and sports are mainstreamed
I also believe that rather than simply focusing on old age, ageing policy should be more forward looking and focus on ageing as a social process. The needs of elderly persons today should retain prime focus, but we should also ensure that the elderly persons tomorrow are protagonists in society.
In this regard, evidence-based policymaking would acknowledge that ageing is shaped by both biological and environmental factors. The former requires inclusive policymaking in areas such as healthcare.
The latter includes social, political and economic environments ranging from housing to open spaces, from employment to food, from transport to accessibility and from pollution to physical activity. Indeed, ageing should not only concern the Minister for the Elderly, but should be on the agenda of different ministries and disciplines.
Policymakers should ensure that as people grow older, policies, cultures and individual actions value healthy ageing. This approach is sometimes referred to as active ageing, and its focus is based on people’s life course and on the prevention of chronic conditions and inequalities as one grows older. This approach can have specific policies for specific stages in people’s lives and actively address deprived groups.
Different governments have adopted commendable policies in this regard: some examples that come to mind are the lifelong learning initiative, the University for the Third Age and policies which encourage healthy eating among students.
However, we need to keep in mind that Malta requires much more investment to promote active ageing. We need to ensure that physical exercise and sports are mainstreamed and not considered to be a luxury.
We need to ensure that deprived groups have access to extra-curricular educational activities, and we need to increase awareness on challenges such as mental health, loneliness, sustainable consumption and healthy eating. We also need to ensure that Malta’s development model does not keep robbing us of open spaces, clean air and a healthy environment.
Various active ageing initiatives do not cause a strain on the public purse. What is required is a change in political culture which values longer-term policies. We also need to move away from politics based on sensationalism towards policymaking that is based on sober, well-researched and flexible approaches that marry vision with holistic public consultation.