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Reimagining ageing in the post-2015 policy arena

31 May 2016

Dementia patient Joaquín, 80, with his wife María (c) Jonas Wresch/HelpAge International

This blog is a summary of my MSc dissertation Relational ageing and international policy networks for the rights of older people: A network perspective on older age and the Sustainable Development Goals (PDF). 

We are all ageing every day. Despite this, there seems to be social resistance to the ageing process and a fear of being "old", often associating this stage of life with mental illness, disability and/or dependency.

Almost all of us will have some connection to an older person who has experienced age-related illness, a form of Alzheimer's or been placed in a care facility (in countries where this is a normal care option). These experiences and memories can be painful and reinforce social messaging that, simply, older age can be a "burden" to oneself and/or to others.

I'm here to tell you that this doesn't have to be true! The core idea behind my dissertation is that the experience of ageing is socially constructed by human systems and relationships through which power and resources flow. Therefore, to some extent, we can collectively choose how the ageing process exists and evolves from the individual to societal level.

It seems rare that we intentionally explore what it feels like to age. What the virtues and challenges of each stage are. How we connect with others in different stages and imagine how we want our older selves to live. My dissertation is an exploration of the ageing landscape through an international lens to prompt evaluation, discussion and imagination of the ageing experience, as well as to argue the importance of ensuring older people's rights are respected. 

The context

Ageing is a rising issue on global political agendas. As the world's population grows older, pressure is mounting on pension, welfare, and health and care systems within a context of increasing inequality, urbanisation and globalisation.

Yet old age is primarily seen from an economic perspective. Attention is paid to how much an ageing population will cost, rather than seeing the age group as an asset that can contribute in many ways to society.

Meanwhile, the prevalence of age discrimination and the marginalisation of older people around the world is disempowering, and can lead to a loss of rights, status and wellbeing over the life course.

However, there is an argument that population ageing is not a demographic-based issue at all, but a problem of "rigid and outmoded policies and institutions".

Public policy and older people

Reimagining the experience and perception of older age and promoting the social development of older people is vital. It necessitates a realignment of "values, objectives and priorities towards the wellbeing of all", as well as reinforcing and promoting the institutions and policies that support this.

Age is still often an after-thought in policy creation, if directly addressed at all. This leaves the rights of older people often unaddressed and unsubstantiated. There must be new approaches to development thinking and practice that are age inclusive and take account of "life course impacts of interventions" (PDF).

The SDGs: An opportunity

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer an excellent case study through which to explore international policy networks for the rights of older people, to investigate what policymakers are saying they're doing and actually doing (or not doing).

The SDGs, facilitated by the United Nations, will guide international policy efforts for the next 15 years. They offer a window of opportunity to reframe ageing policies and practices at the global level, as well as to reimagine the experience of older age. International policy networks for the rights of older people, including prominent advocacy organisations such as HelpAge, are instrumental to the inclusion of older age in post-2015 processes through advocacy and education.

SDG macro-policy commitments at the international level will be implemented in a decentralised manner from the nation-state down, and then will be ranked through the lens of national priorities.

It is up to older age advocacy networks around the world to continue to share stories of the value of older people and build alliances across networks to maintain pressure and visibility of areas where there is (or could be) a disconnect between political commitments and practice. Continuing to lobby for appropriate indicators to measure the SDGs' progress appears to be a strategic and tangible point for focus.

A challenge to you

We and the people we care about will all be on the older end of life one day. It's in our best interest to pay attention and put in our two cents so other people don't decide for us what our experience of older age will look like.

Individuals can contribute to this larger reframing of older age through everyday acts that challenge normative cultural representations of ageing. This means I challenge you to own your age (take some cues from this guy) and remember you are worthy of rights and resources at all ages and abilities. Wrinkles, silver hair, saggy bums... there's a brain full of knowledge and wisdom that usually comes with these too, lest we forget. Don't forget all those years of experience, and some pretty wild stories that might even impress those young whippersnappers too.

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Author profile


Caitlin Nisos
Country: United States
Job title: Development Associate, Strong City Baltimore

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