Federation works to change conception of aging

By Dr. Jane Barratt, Secretary General, International Federation on Ageing

The stories of age discrimination and ageism are not in short supply. In fact, we read about incidents in the news every day.  Even more worrisome are the number of Canadians who experience unfair discriminatory practices and mention them, sadly, only in passing as if this is the norm. Misconceived perceptions perpetuate behaviour and as a society we reinforce them subconsciously.

In Canada, 6-in-10 seniors 66 years of age and older report they have been treated unfairly or differently because of their age.  One-third of Canadians admit to ageist behaviour, and 71 per cent agree older people are less valued in our society than younger generations. These findings should be viewed as both shocking and unacceptable, underscoring the urgent need to combat ageism and the prejudicial narratives that accompany it, through continued advocacy and education initiatives.

The International Federation on Ageing (IFA), together with organizations across disciplines and sectors around the world, has one goal – to protect and respect the rights of older people.  Whether working to inform standards of care, advocating for equal employment standards for older adults or creating initiatives to stop elder abuse, an interdisciplinary approach is necessary to promote the health and well-being of older people. 

We must ask ourselves, why, in comparison to other major social movements to combat racism and sexism, has it been so difficult to globally mobilize individuals and institutions in combating ageism? What does society need to do to position ageism as an issue that demands attention and will affect all? Why does complacency reign supreme?

Statistics Canada highlights a major milestone in 2017, as it was the first year where seniors outnumbered children.  According to population projection scenarios, seniors are expected to comprise approximately 23 to 25 per cent of the Canadian population by 2036, and approximately 24 to 28 per cent in 2061.

This dramatic demographic shift which corresponds with an increased visibility of age discrimination and stereotyping of older people calls for urgent strategies to create environments that enable healthy and productive ageing.  The IFA aligns with other NGOs and the World Health Organization who believe ‘healthy ageing’ creates environments and opportunities that facilitate individuality and an ability to focus on what is meaningful to them, for life.  This is a human right and yet it is often at-risk of subjugation.

The portrayal of Canada as a nation with immense respect for its older people could translate into, for example, significant social capital, an army of volunteers, extended working life and a healthy ageing population.  On the other hand, depending upon societal investment towards the wellbeing of older people, it could equally be represented by an increased burden of care, discriminatory practices and an increased prevalence of elder abuse.   

In August, the IFA will host more than 1,200 delegates from more than 75 countries for the 14th Global Conference on Ageing in Toronto. This three-day conference is a global conversation across four major themes, one being combating ageism, and 26 subthemes intended to drive discussion and ideas, and to facilitate strategy development addressing inequalities faced by older people.

Despite the fact that most older people enjoy autonomy into their later years, prejudicial narratives continue to dominate and insinuate that chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, a lower immunity to infections and changing vision will greatly impede the majority of older people.  Continued conversations about maintaining and improving ‘functional ability’ ensure that individuals are encouraged to maximize their own productivity and contribution to family and society – this is critical given the shift in Canadian population demographics.

One such example where out-of-date and unfounded misconceptions drive complacency to the point of preventable loss is in the field of vision health. Despite the ageist narratives, declining vision is not a natural part of the ageing process. There are many points of prevention such as equal access to screening to detect vision loss early on and access to safe and approved treatments that are proven to stop vision loss and, in some cases, reverse damage. Vision is directly linked to a person’s ability to contribute in society and by addressing the fundamental human right, we can drive outcomes that ensure and enable progress, while also combating ageism.

This global conference is about looking forward to a ‘Decade of Healthy Ageing’ where older people around the world have access to screening, safe and appropriate treatment options and are viewed as valued contributors to society. Discussions on ageism will be complemented by a series of conversations led by the world’s premier experts.

For details on the IFA or the upcoming 14th Global Conference, visit www.ifa-fiv.org.