Age-friendly Environments Improve Quality of Life by a Factor of Four

A new study of more than 10,500 over 55-year-olds living in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick, reveals that older people who live in areas with accessible transport, green spaces and safer streets are less likely to suffer from depression and loneliness.

According to the report’s authors Sarah Gibney, Mengyang Zhang and Cathal Brennan of Ireland’s Department of Health’s Healthy and Positive Ageing, the findings are consistent with previous research which shows that older adults believing their environments to be more age-friendly were almost four times more likely to report better quality of life as those perceiving lower age-friendliness levels.

But, what constitutes an age-friendly environment?

Age Action Ireland spokeswoman, Celine Clarke, says “For communities to be truly age-friendly, older residents have to be engaged in shaping the place where they live. This involves local groups, councils, businesses and residents, all working together to identify and make changes in both the physical and social environments. For example, transport, outdoor spaces, volunteering and employment, leisure and community services.”

Don’t be blinded by the dazzle of new technologies

Mac MacLachlan, Professor of Psychology and Social Inclusion at Maynooth University’s Assisting Living & Learning Institute (ALL), believes technology has a critical role to play in enabling age-friendly environments, but urges caution. “There are so many different technical solutions out there, the problem is they don’t generally work together, and older adults don't know which products and services are efficient, trustworthy and reliable."

To address this challenge ALL, together with 34 multinational partner organisations, has embarked on '*SHAPES' a €21m research project which aims to explore the very essence of "age-friendly": Encompassing older adult's relationships with their homes, their neighbours, their urban environment, and new technologies designed to support independent ageing. (*Scroll down the page for further detail)

Market forces

And it is not only researchers exploring this evolving marketplace. Institutional investors, technology giants and multinational service providers are slowly but surly marking their territory. By way of example, ENGIE, a large energy and services group is now investing in the design, build and future proofing of infrastructure, homes and support services, spanning regeneration, retirement living and integrated energy solutions.

Their innovative approach puts people at the heart of each tech enabled ‘LIFEstyle by ENGIE’ project, with specialist staff providing community-based person-centred functions to minimise social isolation and integrate communities across all property tenure and generations.

Life is for living

ENGIE Retirement Solutions Director Paula Broadbent says: “As a society, we need to balance out a reliance on technological advancements alongside provision of social interaction opportunities to ensure people not only live longer, safer lives, but also healthier, happier and more enriched ones. Life after all, is for living and not simply surviving.”

More enlightened local authorities are also waking up to the value of a more holistic and constructive approach to addressing the ageing society challenge. This week I have been on a fact finding trip to Belfast, where I learned about the City Council and Ulster University's ambitious plans to transform the city into a dynamic smart capital, with a series of exciting digital initiatives designed to empower enterprise, youth and older citizens alike.

Breaking down borders

Health and care practitioners are also calling for a much more integrated and collaborative approach. Dr Diarmuid O’Shea, Consultant Geriatrician, St Vincent’s University Hospital and President of the Irish Gerontological Society (IGS), is keen to highlight the contribution which older people can and do make to modern day society wherever they live, and he is calling for action now.

IGS has established a fantastic initiative 'Transforming Ageing Across Borders', in collaboration with colleagues from Geriatrics and Gerontology in Northern Ireland and members of the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics.

Writing in the Irish Medical Times, Dr O’Shea said: The practicalities of day-to-day living should be easier for all of us to navigate. To achieve this, we must ensure that our online, digital, and iCloud dominated tech-world is accessible to all, not just the young.

We have a wonderful opportunity to embrace our increasing life expectancy, to promote independent living and add healthy years to life. We must embrace it.

Research into “assistive technology” is increasing at a very rapid rate from “monitoring” to “assisting care” and “smart homes”. This is where gerontechnology could really add to the quality of life for older people and support them to age well at home.”

Maynooth's Professor MacLachlan agrees: "We need to think through the context and meaning of older people’s lives. To assist them to identify what kind of home and technology is right for their circumstances, and through SHAPES we aim to help them find the right solution when they need it."

Joined up thinking

Ireland is one of 41 countries involved with the World Health Organisation’s Global Network for Age-Friendly Cities and Communities, which promotes healthy active ageing to improve the quality of life for people over 60. However, writing in the Irish Times, Age Action Ireland spokesperson Celine Clarke said there was no cohesive planning for older people in evidence across government departments.

Clearly it is time to connect the dots. Dr O’Shea is calling for private, public and 3rd sector stakeholders to join forces in a united effort to become "age-attuned, age-accommodating and age-friendly".

Promoting a culture that upholds dignity, respect and compassion

To achieve this Dr O’Shea says' "We need a culture that upholds dignity, respect and compassion for each other over the course of our lives. We also need timely access to supports if and when we need them. While we each have a personal responsibility, there is also a shared societal and Governmental policy responsibility. These are all interconnected. Progress cannot happen unless we all work together.”

The Agile Ageing Alliance most definitely concurs. If you would like to share your views on what constitutes an ideal age friendly environment please write to info@agileageing.org.

AAA is a partner in the aforementioned SHAPES project, (*Smart and Healthy Ageing through People Engaging in supportive Systems). If you are interested in further engagement with the Agile Ageing Alliance join AAA on LinkedIn, and/or follow this link.