Social scientists from almost every continent have come to the University of Alberta this week to develop a plan that will help address some of the pressing social issues faced by the world’s aging population.
“We want to foster capacity building and the creation and transfer of knowledge on international issues of population aging, with a focus toward creating a society for all ages,” said Norah Keating, U of A ecology professor and organizer of the strategic planning meeting, which runs for three days starting March 30. “It seems to us, the ones who have developed this initiative, that population aging, when it’s been highlighted, has been couched in an apocalyptic language of the costs to society.
“We aim to redress this one-dimensional understanding of aging and its impact on nations, communities and older people.”
Deanna Williamson, chair of the U of A Department of Human Ecology, says the aim of the conference aligns with her department’s work. “The research program developed would have important and significant implications for enhancing the well-being of older adults,” she said. “This outcome is consistent with the mission of the department, which is to create a healthy human environment. It is humbling to have some of the world’s best gerontology scholars here with us.”
The meeting was made possible by a grant obtained by Keating from the Worldwide Universities Network Global Challenge competition fund. The network is a global alliance of 16 research-intensive universities drawn from the United Kingdom, Europe, North America, China and Australia. Issues surrounding an aging population are one of the areas where the university has taken a leading role within the organization.
“We are very pleased to have the WUN community on campus,” said Carl Amrhein, provost and vice-president (academic), recognizing Keating’s co-applicants from other member universities at the opening of the meeting. “International importance on health and welfare, care giving and bringing the world to Edmonton are some of the many things we talked about as we continue to internationalize this institution in ways that few schools have achieved.”
Keating has also chosen to announce the launch of her Global Social Initiative on Aging during the gathering, which she describes as a high-profile initiative with potential to influence the lives of millions of older adults around the world. It is part of the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics, which works to enhance the quality of life and well-being of older people worldwide through its membership, and comprises more than 70 countries.
Over the course of the three-day meeting, experts will try to tackle questions concerning participation of older people in social development, families and societies. They will also address issues of pandemic, changing family structures as they affect the elderly, and poverty, especially among older rural populations. Du Peng, regional chair of the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics for Asia and Oceania, says the nature of the concerns will differ between developed and developing countries.
“China has the biggest number of older persons in the world, about 170 million. As a developing country, we don’t have the full coverage of social security,” Peng said. “In developed countries in Japan, for example, it’s not the same.”
Heung Bong Cha, president of the association, agrees, saying developed countries have their own set of age-related problems. In 2001, there were 444,000 people over the age of 85 in Canada; by 2051 that number is expected to rise to almost two million.
“The main issues are longevity and healthy aging, the long-term care of older persons with chronic diseases,” says Cha. “Another is social participation and activities in the communities, as well as family relations.”
Keating says they will also find ways to get the attention of policy-makers on the issues discussed. “We want to figure out how to get into the attention of organizations such as the United Nations with this information. We want to change things so that the lives of older people are better.”