The age of ageing

Laboratório de Investimento Social
At no previous point in history has there ever been an age structure in which the older age groups are larger than the younger ones. The demographic shift is unprecedented and will challenge policy makers, civil society and individuals. Yet this shift also represents an economic and societal opportunity.

Increasing life expectancy and historically low birth rates are causing a significant change in the balance between the number of older and younger people in Europe. We have all heard about the ageing populations. Still, unless one imagines what that really means, and its implications, it becomes just another piece of information.

In Portugal it is estimated that between 2012 and 2060 the number of elderly for every 100 young people will increase from 131 to 307. The worldwide share of elderly people has tripled in the last 50 years, and is estimated to triple once again before 2050. The implications are immense. The demographic shift poses a wide range of social and economic challenges. The ageing population will put additional pressure on already pressured areas, including health and healthcare systems, pensions, home care and nursing homes. Health and social problems that are linked to ageing are likely to increase profoundly in scale. The capacity to care for the ageing population in an economically sustainable way will depend on the public, private and social sectors’ ability to find new and smart solutions.

Policy makers are and will continue to be faced with multiple challenges. In the labour markets, adjustments will have to be made to account for an ageing labour force and potential labour shortages, as a large share of the population reaches retirement age. Social welfare systems and especially pensions systems will be pressured, reviewed and potentially changed. The demand for healthcare staff will increase profoundly, following the demand for healthcare services. These and other challenges will have to be addressed in an economically sustainable way that secures the well being of both the old and the new generations.

Although the societal and systemic challenges of ageing are clear, it is easy to forget that these challenges derive from something positive, namely that many people are living longer and healthier lives. It should be possible to translate longer and healthier lives into an economic and societal opportunity, and not just a challenge.

The term “active ageing” is often used in this context of opportunities. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines active ageing as “the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age”. The “active” part refers to participation in social, economic, cultural and civic affairs. The elderly population should not be viewed primarily as a burden, but as a resource.

The ageing population has and will lead to growing demand and opportunity for social sector organizations to develop innovative programs, tools, services and technologies that address the needs and challenges of the elderly. There is the same demand and opportunity to develop products and services that recognizes the older population as a resource. Fortunately, many non-profits and social enterprises are already making a positive impact in the area of active ageing. Three good and diverse international examples are Active Minds (UK), Siel Bleu (France) and Granny Aupair (Germany).

Active Minds develops, manufactures and sells activity products for dementia patients across Europe, especially in the UK, and in North America. Their portfolio of around 70 products includes communication aid products, dementia games, puzzles, reminiscence activities and more. By providing meaningful and engaging activities, these products help dementia patients, families, friends and health staff to improve their relationships and quality of life.

Siel Bleu is a provider of physical activity programmes for elderly people in France. The organization scaled internationally in 2010, and can now be found in Ireland, Spain and Belgium. Siel Bleu seeks to improve the quality of life of older adults through fun, interactive, social and tailored exercise programmes. Siel Bleu delivers adapted exercise programmes in two thirds of French nursing homes. Among other positive health outcomes, Siel Bleu’s programmes have been found to significantly decrease the number of falls in elderly participants. Note that falls and complications from falls represent the most serious and frequent health problem for the elderly. The economic costs of falls represent around half of the total cost of health care expenditure for those aged 75 and more in France.

Granny Aupair supports elderly women to go abroad and work as au pairs. Granny Aupair is an online portal that matches women over 50 who want to spend some time abroad as an au pair, as a companion or as a house-sitter, with families, people living alone or house-owners. Since 2010, more than 1000 “grannies” have travelled to 40 countries. Granny Aupair also facilitates volunteer work for “grannies” in interesting social projects in India, Africa, Vietnam, and in South America. Granny Aupair benefits not only the elderly women, but also the families, older people living alone and others in need of some extra help.

A fourth organization making a positive impact in the area of active ageing is Shared Lives, mentioned in a previous blog post about loneliness. In Shared Lives, an adult or elderly in need moves in with or regularly visits a Shared Lives carer, and together they share family, social networks and community life.

These four organizations are very different in terms of the people they help and how. They demonstrate how broad and wide the active ageing social market opportunities are. There are so many other ideas and solutions out there, waiting to be found or implemented, scaled or replicated. The work to identify and put these ideas in motion should start now.


Jan Tveterås

Jan integrates the second edition of the SIB research Programme and is currently developing a feasibility study for a Social Impact Bond for the methodology of Shared Lives.


No comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *