What does success look like? This is one of many questions UN member states are asking themselves as they seek to create a new global framework to tackle poverty, inequality and environmental sustainability. These Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have the potential to shape government policies worldwide.
For those working on ageing issues, the answer is clear: success looks like an older person. The face of an older person is a triumph representing improved healthcare, economic and social development, and longer lifespans. It can also represent a great diversity of experience including poorer health, increased frailty, isolation and marginalisation, as well as increased poverty. Sadly these facts are being ignored by the international community. The truth is that older people are hardly taken into account by governments, UN agencies and even NGOs; people in later life are simply not being viewed as part of the development process.
There is an urgent need to face up to these facts. Older people can no longer be shut out of development policy and programmes. This is not about a single generation of older people, but how we look after people throughout their lives. Evidence shows that today’s youth stand a much greater chance of living longer than ever before. It is also about recognising the contributions older people make to their families and the community around them.
For those responsible for implementing the post-2015 goals, not taking older people into account can have dire consequences. For a start, it means ignoring a significant portion of the population. In 2014, there were 868 million older people in the world, with two-thirds living in developing countries. By 2030, when the SDGs finish, there will be almost 1.4 billion older people and there will be 2 billion by 2050 – 80 per cent of whom will be living in developing countries. It is inconceivable that one-fifth of the world’s population could be ignored, yet this is precisely what is taking place today.
Part of the problem lies with the way governments and international development actors gather information. The realities of later life are routinely left out of much international data collection. This is why the SDG commitment to disaggregating data by age is so important. Only by making visible the situation of older women and men can we make the necessary policy choices to improve their lives and support them and their families. To achieve this, however, we have to go beyond looking at all people over the age of 60 as a single group. Effective policies require more detailed knowledge about older people’s lives by collecting information in 5 year age bands to uncover real need and capacity in the population.
When we examine the lives of older people in developing countries more closely, what do we see? In large part, people who are economically and socially active members of their community. Later life is not a time of respite, as over four-fifths of older people do not have pensions to rely on. With little or no income support, retirement is not an option.
We also see increasing isolation and poverty. Economic migration, diseases such as AIDS, conflict and natural disasters are tearing traditional family support networks apart. This is leaving increasing numbers of older people in rural areas to look after their grandchildren or fend for themselves.
The facts of ageing mean that the physical changes taking place in later life affect people no matter where they live. Chronic illnesses and non-communicable diseases are now by far some of the largest health problems affecting developing countries. This includes a steep rise in the incidence of dementia, which has been recognised as a global concern by G7 governments. For many people, increased longevity means longer life in poorer health.
Population ageing is a fact. Greater numbers of older people in developing countries is a fact. Increased longevity is a fact. But this is not a crisis or a problem to be solved. There is no cliff’s edge that will take us by surprise. Successful development requires good planning and good policies. So what does success look like? A healthy, active, well-supported and vibrant ageing society.
To find out more about this subject, please view www.ageinternational.org.uk/olderworld where you will be able to download a copy of the report ‘Facing the facts: the truth about ageing and development.’ It contains a series of articles by high-profile thought leaders, including Dr Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization, Mary Robinson, from The Elders, Baroness Sally Greengross, a British Peer working tirelessly on ageing and Sir Brendan Gormley, KCMG, MBE, an expert in humanitarian work. about the author
Ken Bluestone is Political and Policy Adviser for Age International. He leads its policy and influencing work in the UK and internationally on issues affecting older people in lower and middle income countries. This involves strengthening Age International’s knowledge-base on ageing and international development issues, as well as building strategic alliances with key stakeholders worldwide. Current priorities include ensuring the post-2015 sustainable development goal framework is relevant for older people and working towards a UN human rights convention for older people.
Ken has worked in policy and influencing with a wide range of organisations over the past 20 years on issues including: global ageing; human rights in Latin America; multi-stakeholder dialogues on water and sanitation; HIV&AIDS; corporate social responsibility in the pharmaceutical sector; and food sovereignty.