How to adapt to ageing societies

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The growing average age of populations is not always a burden on society, it can be a rewarding opportunity to enrich communities and our world as a whole. Increasingly, governments and local authorities are seizing the gift of longevity to imagine social infrastructure differently – and new areas of standardization are in the pipeline ready to help.

We are not getting any younger and neither is the worldʼs population. The number of older people has exploded in recent years and we are approaching an era where words like “aged societies” are becoming a reality. In fact, by 2050 it is expected that many countries will be classed as “super-aged societies”, meaning that more than 21 % of the population is over 65; and by 2030, the number of people in the world aged 60 years and above will have grown by 56 %1).

Adapting to this trend poses economic, social and political challenges and may increase the dependency of older citizens on those of working age. This regularly conjures up doomsday scenarios of workforce shortages, the financial collapse of pension and health systems, mass loneliness and insecurity.

The truth is, ageing will dramatically alter the way societies and economies work. This includes how older adults find fulfilment, at what age they retire and their quality of life once they do retire. Linked with this are the pressures on societies in terms of healthcare, social security and accessibility, each of which calls for innovative solutions in everything from city infrastructures to community-based living, allowing everyone to benefit from the contribution that older people can offer.

So as we enter an era where more and more people will be living longer, it begs the question: Is the so-called “burden” of older age sustainable, or even real? And how can we manage the change and embrace the opportunities presented by our shifting demographics? The answer could lie in standardization, which is a powerful tool to support the adaptation of goods, services and environments to the needs of ageing populations.


Unlocking social capital

Global ageing is widely seen as one of the most significant risks to global prosperity. Yet, according to Dr Malcolm Fisk, a Senior Research Fellow at Leicesterʼs De Montfort University in the United Kingdom who is active in a number of projects aimed at challenging ageism, the fact that there are more people over a certain age is a real opportunity. “Older people represent a cadre of knowledgeable and experienced individuals,” he says. “They are immensely adaptable. And, indeed, they have to be in order to deal with loss of income (on retirement), bereavement, disability [and] the prejudice of others.”

Ageing, admittedly, is a challenge to global public infrastructure, but the good news is that if policy makers and leaders plan adequately for the changes ahead, we stand a very good chance of realizing the potential benefits of the ageing trend – such as utilizing the immense social capital of older people – while avoiding its perils.

Recent population trends indicate that virtually every country should anticipate significant growth in the number of older persons over the coming decades. Although Japan is said to have the worldʼs oldest population, it is the less developed countries that are experiencing the most dramatic demographic change. To face up to this global phenomenon, multi-sectoral policies are needed in all countries to ensure that older citizens are able to participate actively in the economic, social, cultural and political life of their societies.

By understanding their specific population trends, governments can anticipate future needs with respect to their older population and can proactively implement the policies and programmes that will ensure the well-being and full socio-economic integration of older persons while, at the same time, being better positioned to maintain the fiscal solvency of pension and healthcare systems and promoting economic growth. A case in point is the “Abenomics” policy, announced by the Japanese government in 2015, which promises to strengthen the social security system and put in place an integrated community care system, enabling older people to live independently – with support where necessary – for the rest of their lives.

On a more local scale, there are a number of schemes that try to keep older people safe, engaged, and productive. The World Health Organization Global Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities, for example, features initiatives such as the New York City Department of Transportʼs Safe Streets for Seniors programme, which saw 7 600 dangerous road intersections redesigned and pedestrian fatalities fall by 21 %.

Accessibility is key

If older people can remain active participants in society, they can continue to contribute to our socio-economic development. Engagement also helps prevent isolation and loneliness, and can ensure financial security. Inclusive design sets about creating environments that take into account different usersʼ needs. It is focused on needs related to participation (access to information, accessible buildings and public transport), health (accessible and affordable healthcare services and opportunities to be physically active), continuing education (models of lifelong learning) and security (affordable housing and services) – in short, all things that foster age-friendly accessibility.

Accessibility lies at the core of age-friendly communities, in everything “from buildings and homes to the configurability and usability of products and services,” says Malcolm Fisk. This will present a number of challenges in the future, but standards can play a key role in facilitating and encouraging innovation in this area. “Universal design criteria must apply… and must be more embedded in standards.”

Accessibility is central to the Swedish municipality of Danderydʼs programme to ensure citizens are able to make informed choices on how they want to live their life at an older age. The town is keen for its residents to continue to live independently and enjoy a good quality of life for as long as possible, explains Jonas Sundling, Quality Manager of Social Service at Danderyd Council and an active member of CENʼs technical committee CEN/TC 449, Quality of care for older people. “We have a comprehensive accessibility plan, renewed every two years, that not only covers physical accessibility in council-owned buildings and public places, but accessibility to information as well.”

“We also believe that highly qualified health and social caregivers want to work with high-quality employers,” he adds, “which is why we are active in [Swedenʼs technical committee] SIS/TK 572. We have recently developed a Swedish standard on the quality of care for elderly people in ordinary or residential care facilities and are working towards implementing it in our organization.”

Accessibility is also a key factor in the Progressive project, a European Commission-funded research initiative aimed at setting in place a dynamic and sustainable framework where the contribution of standards and standardization for information and communication technology can be maximized in services that support active and healthy ageing.

“We are going to set down guidelines that link to a clear notion of ʻgood practiceʼ,” says Malcolm Fisk, leader of the project. “Our work will include setting frameworks to get the voice of older people heard in the standardization process. The commercial interests of the companies involved in such processes will, therefore, be more balanced, at least in those areas that impact on older people.”

Age-friendly standards

On an international level, work is underway to use standardization as a means to facilitate innovative solutions for the challenges posed by ageing populations. Developed as a starting point for addressing these issues, the international workshop agreement IWA 18, Framework for integrated community-based life-long health and care services in aged societies, is designed to encourage healthcare service providers to operate “a shift in thinking towards person-centred services” that are dignified, accessible, safe and easy to use as a basis for establishing societies where people can stay healthy and active for as long as possible.

The framework, which was developed by experts from government, public health, industry and research, lays down the fundamentals of what should be addressed when considering community-based integrated health and care services for older people. It focuses on ensuring that basic individual needs like healthcare, daily living tasks, well-being, human contact and safety will continue to be met as a person grows older.

Recognizing the need to go further in this area, ISO has developed a Strategic Advisory Group (SAG) on Ageing Societies to help inform its future work in supporting the demographic transition. Led by BSI, ISOʼs member for the United Kingdom, and composed of experts from all areas of government, community infrastructure, research and the aged care industry, it aims to investigate how standards can help solve the challenges posed by ageing populations. ISO already has expertise across a broad scope of topics that impact on ageing societies and is well placed to undertake strategic work in this area.

SAG Secretary and BSI representative Ben Carson says the group has so far identified seven key challenging areas comprising:

  • Community care service/in-home
  • Enabling/assistive technology for the elderly
  • Caregiving
  • Integrated information management
  • Future planning
  • Enabling communities
  • Building standards

The next step will be to carry out a gap analysis of existing national, regional and international standards and guidelines to identify where knowledge already exists and prioritize where future standards could be developed. On this point, Carson is positive: “The group recognizes there is already a wide range of standards that help communities adapt.” For example, ISO 37120 for sustainable development in communities defines a set of indicators to steer and measure the performance of city services (such as transport, health, safety and recreation) and helps track where improvements can be made.

Other documents also contribute indirectly to the cause, such as ISO/IEC Guide 71, Guide for addressing accessibility in standards. It is particularly helpful in developing requirements and recommendations for standards that focus on systems that people use, interact with or access.

Reinventing old age

The irony of our times is that older people, who were traditionally respected for their wisdom as prophets and leaders, are now a source of anxiety for the future. We need to change our mindset that ageing can be positive rather than negative. Discarding old stereotypes, we must change our institutions and public policies to reflect the altered needs, aspirations and capacities of older people.

Such profound evolution involves standards that challenge ageism and embrace the opportunities that an ageing population can give us, by facilitating their engagement and involvement. It will take some time before more standards from this perspective are published, but the SAGʼs gap analysis report (due out only later this year) is a significant step forward. It will identify some of the shortcomings and provide a catalyst for innovative solutions that cover generations and demographics. 

Drawing on expertise from around the globe is a key to that. “Every country has its own issues and priorities when it comes to managing older populations,” concedes Carson, “so bringing together this group of experts from such diverse specialty areas and geographical regions means we can all learn from each other and provide a more holistic approach.” For itʼs not just about taking care of older people, it is about harnessing their capacity to contribute to what all of us in society want for the future.

1) World Population Ageing

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Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis
Editor-in-Chief of ISOfocus