Good Health through the Life-course: Recognizing Older Persons’ role in Sustainable Development

October 1, 2019

In 1990, the United Nations General Assembly designated October 1 as the International Day of Older Persons. In line with the spirit of the Sustainable Development Agenda of ‘leaving no one behind’, this year’s theme is “The Journey to Age Equality“.  The idea is to promote the inclusion of older persons in all spheres of development, in keeping with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10. The goal on health is equally keen on ensuring equitable access to health care for all Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3.

Globally, the number of older persons (aged 60 years and older) is over 800 million, making up over 12 percent of the world population. This number is projected to rise to more than 2 billion by the year 2050. This is a significant proportion of the population and therefore lack of involvement of older populations in development initiatives would be a considerable loss.  Many continue to make social, economic and political contributions, usually with difficulty due to unfavorable work environments, discrimination, elder abuse by relatives and other community members, disability and chronic health concerns, among other limitations.

Promoting older persons’ involvement and active participation in socio-economic and political spheres reduces inequalities but also is critical to the attainment of sustainable development.

Health Challenges of Older Persons

The journey to equality for older persons needs investments in the health system with special attention to the needs of older persons. The health needs of this particular group are complex as aging comes with reducing capacity and more often than not, chronic health conditions. Multiple health conditions usually co-exist, including physical (ear, eye, back, bone, joint and lung conditions), mental concerns (depression, dementia) as well as old age-related (gerontological) syndromes. Some of the conditions start earlier in life and are related to one’s environment.

The increase in the aging populations worldwide and the complexity of their health needs demands that health systems prepare for, support, and respond sustainably to the needs of all the members of the population. However, health systems across the globe have not changed quickly enough to accommodate the health needs of older persons. Whereas aging comes with chronic health concerns, most health systems worldwide-at varying levels- are still tuned to providing emergency and acute care as evident from the construction and/or upgrade of hospitals.

Although gerontology conditions are common, most countries do not have healthcare programs dedicated to this area, despite the obvious need for such training. Furthermore, whereas research on older persons’ issues is finally getting attention, it is disturbing to note that, data about older people and their concerns are still limited. As such, the journey to age equality for all, although feasible, will take longer unless certain measures are instituted.

Promoting health through the life-course

Recognizing the need to ensure that every person lives a long and healthy life and committed to fostering health through the life-course, the World Health Organization has identified three approaches to respond to the needs of older persons. These include ensuring that older-person centered and integrated care is developed and available, a capable health workforce to meet the needs of the older populations as well as systems oriented around the provision of intrinsic capacity. Investments in age-friendly environments (physical, social, etc), long-term care systems and data and research are critical.

In addition to increasing the numbers of motivated healthcare workers, governments need to invest in a workforce with the necessary skills to attend to the ends of a diverse population through a rich medical school curricula. Pre- and in-service training should include modules on care for older persons.

Today on the International Day of Older Persons, reach out to a senior member of society and remind them that we cannot fulfill our development potential without them!