People at an advanced age are seldom asked to share their knowledge, skills and life experience. This conflicts with a strong need of the older generation to participate and play a significant role within their own community in later life. The European Active 80+ project and the Dutch project JointPower 80+ offer a new perspective on active ageing.
About the authors
Laura Christ is a social gerontologist and consultant Self Confrontation Method. She is project leader of Active80+ on behalf of the Older Women’s Network - Netherlands.
Kees Penninx is an expert on change and owner of bureau ActivAge, developer of new concepts and practical applications with respect to social commitment, informal care, living arrangements and participation.
Translation: Angelique van Vondelen
All countries of the European Union see an increase in the number of older people, and especially of the over 80s. Only 3.5% of the Europeans were octogenarians - or older - in 2001, but it is to be expected that this percentage will rise to at least 12% in 2060. In the past few years, the promotion of active ageing, volunteering and lifelong learning by older people have had a prominent place on the agenda of the European Union. In 2011, the European year of Volunteering, an important objective was the recognition of voluntary work as a fundamental part of active citizenship and democracy within the collective consciousness of the Member States. The voluntary contribution of older people was crucial in this recognition.
Marking the 10th anniversary of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, the European Union declared 2012 as the European Year of Active Ageing. Active ageing is described as participation in employment and the community by volunteering and active citizenship. Within the context of the European Year, several projects and activities were initiated. Remarkably, the focus lies primarily on the participation of people in their so-called Third Age (from 60 – 80). Little is known about the participation and contribution of the over 80s. The EU program Silver Economy, which outlines the EU strategy up till 2020, has placed active and healthy ageing high on the agenda and stimulates older people – from the age of 50 onwards – to remain active as long as possible, to participate independently, and to contribute to society and the economy. In this case, however, participation and lifelong learning refer to ‘participation in the labour market’. These programs seem to forget the oldest generation and erroneously invoke an image of the over 80s as people who are solely in need of care or as consumers of healthcare and technology.
Possibly a change is about to come. October 2014 was the start of the European Active 80+ project, in which five countries participate: Austria, Germany, Italy, Lithuania and the Netherlands. The Active 80+ project is financed by the Erasmus+ program and resorts under the Adult Education program in which lifelong learning is one of the important objectives. The Active 80+ program does concentrate on the oldest generation. Its purpose is to create awareness and recognition of the knowledge and skills of the over 80s and to promote concrete opportunities to keep learning and to remain active within the community in a way that suits older people. A first step in the Active80+ project was to set up an inventory and analysis of current expertise and practical experience by means of desk research in the participating countries and on a European level. Central notions and search entries that were used in the inventory are: lifelong learning, volunteering and civil citizenship. These were linked to an advanced age and/or the Fourth Age (i.e. over 80s). The inventory and analysis showed that there is a lack of research and public debate about active ageing during the Fourth Age. It also revealed that there is a strong need among the older generation to keep participating at an advanced age and to be involved in their own community.
“The most important thing is that I want to be recognized. I do not want to be overlooked, I want to feel like I do matter and be meaningful to others”.
(Active80+: quote from an interview with an octogenarian)
Following the desk research, in depth interviews were carried out and the over 80s state that to keep learning, to play a significant role in the life of others and to be involved in the community are prerequisites for a purposeful and happy life. For the respondents, however, it is not self-evident that they are acknowledged or that others take them seriously. People and/or organizations in their immediate surroundings hardly ever ask them to share their knowledge, skills and (life)experience. Although the quality of the living environment and access to existing services are of major importance to older people (Van Dijk, 2015) they participate less than the age group of 36-65 year olds (Engbersen & Snel, 2015). The result is that they become less visible as a positive force in society, they are not able to make a difference to others and are characterized as people that are only in need of care. This will undermine their quality of life.
Because their social network is usually smaller and their participation in public life diminishes, older people are often dependent on care workers and volunteers as their principal contacts. The latter are in a position to support the over 80s and facilitate them to discover their hidden talents and stimulate them to engage in useful activities. This asks for a different attitude towards older people and it also requires different skills from care workers and volunteers. Within the framework of the Active 80+ project, the participating countries developed a training for care workers and volunteers in residential care homes, activity centers or other local organizations that focus on the older generation. The Dutch partners in the European project Active 80+, the Older Women’s Network Netherlands and ActivAge, have developed a special approach which is called JointPower80+. A short training-course of two half-days enables local organizations, with the help of practical guidelines, to start organizing their own activating dialogue with professionals, volunteers and the over 80s. JointPower80+ offers a clear approach in which not only knowledge, skills and life experience of the over 80s are being discussed, but also their social aspirations within the community. This is done by means of a structured dialogue which takes place in two separate meetings of two hours each. The participants join in a discussion about the central question: what does it mean to participate in society and play a significant role in the community? Multiple and creative work processes are used in order to establish in which way the over 80s could participate and to discover possible incentives or impediments. As well as: What can I do when participating becomes more difficult, what can WE do? Are there enough opportunities in the environment of the over 80s? What could/should happen? At the end of the first meeting, every participant is asked to invite someone else (neighbours, friends, children), everyone is welcome.
The dialogue stimulates older people, as well as professionals and volunteers, to think freely so that new images, visions and concrete ideas emerge about the oldest generation and the role they could play within the community. The definition of ‘community’ depends on what the over 80s themselves indicate. This could be a single street, a neighborhood, a residential building, a care community, a religious group, friends or relatives. Professionals and volunteers, who are the main contacts of older people in this particular setting, will also join the dialogue. JointPower means that anyone can learn from everyone, regardless of age, and if everyone participates it is possible to seize opportunities and overcome barriers.
As becomes clear from our desk research and European policies and programs, the oldest generation is mainly depicted as vulnerable and as consumers of care. In his column in Geron 3 (2015) Frits de Lange takes one step further when he states that many people turn their back to the Fourth Age: “We do not like older people, we hate being old because we are afraid of it… We distance ourselves en masse and turn our backs to the Fourth Age, which is dominated by vulnerability, decline and care dependency”. We agree with De Lange that the increasing vulnerability which is inherent in later life should not be ignored. With Joint- Power80+ there is room to reflect and discuss. We think that during the Fourth Age, apart from vulnerability, decline and care dependency there is a counterpart which is more fundamental, namely a deep human need to be acknowledged and to make a difference to others, no matter how vulnerable someone is or how difficult the circumstances are. Being able to see, recognize, appreciate and help to realize this need contributes to a sense of joy, a feeling of connectedness and a way to find meaning in life. This should be the focus in the framework and daily repertoire of the professionals - in the Netherlands as well as in Europe - that look after the oldest fellow human beings.