Sunday, October 17, 2021

Ageing in The Gambia: a celebration or a challenge?


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Sola Mahoney

In about ten days’ time on Friday, 1st October the world will celebrate the International Day of Older Persons (IDOP). I emphasize the word celebrate to make the point that we will be doing much more than just marking yet another global date in the international calendar. Because there really is lots to celebrate when it comes to ageing in the 21st-century. After all, thanks to vast improvements in medicine and science, we are now living longer than ever and many of the world’s population are now enjoying a healthy old age.

For example:

Today, for the first time in history, most people in the world can expect to live into their sixties and beyond.

And around the world, two persons celebrate their 60th birthday every second — meaning that 58 million people turn 60 every year.

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A significant number of these older persons are actively engaged in their communities: globally 47% of men and 24% of women over 60 are still participating actively in the labor force.

Between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 will nearly double from 12% to 22%.

And by 2050, for the first time in recorded history, there will be more people over the age of 60 than there are children under 15.

Any one of these global statistics is reason enough for us to celebrate ageing in the 21st-century, and a number of these positive developments are also reflected in the Gambia’s own population statistics.

But as my 92-year-old mother often reminds me, old age and long life are not necessarily the greatest blessing for every older person. What makes it a blessing — and a celebration — is when it comes with good health. And as we know all too well good health is not something that we can ever take for granted. In fact, good health itself can be a real challenge.

This is why aging in the 21st-century is both a celebration and a challenge: it’s a celebration of the improvements in life expectancy that humanity has achieved through advances in medical sciences; but it comes with the challenge of making our later years as meaningful and as fulfilling as our younger years. And to a very large extent, the secret to taking on and overcoming this challenge lies in healthy ageing.

It’s perhaps therefore no surprise that against this background the United Nations has declared the decade 2021-2030 as the Decade of Healthy Ageing. They are calling on all of us to engage in a decade of concerted global action on healthy ageing to ensure that all people can continue to fulfill their potential in their later years.

During this Decade of Healthy Ageing, one of the key areas of focus is to change how we think, how we feel and how we act towards age and ageing. Because there’s plenty of both anecdotal and empirical evidence that shows us that the key to healthy ageing begins with that critical attitudinal change. The negative attitudes, perceptions and stereotypes that we have when it comes to ageing is what is known as “ageism”. And many experts and day-to-day practitioners in the field of ageing will confirm that ageism is a huge hindrance to the health and well-being of older persons. That’s why this year on October 1st, the International Day of Older Persons, HelpAge International – an international NGO dedicated to creating a fairer world for older people so they can live safe, healthy and dignified lives – will be launching a global campaign to expose ageism in our world.

The gift and blessing of aging should really be a celebration for each and everyone of us. We realize that it cannot always be that way — and for far too many older persons, ageing is still a real challenge. To address that challenge, the United Nations Decade of Healthy Ageing reminds us that there are many things that we can and should do to make the most of life as we get older — and to help our older citizens make the most of their lives.

The International Day of Older Persons is meant to be a celebration of older people and their role in society – both in The Gambia and across the world. So as we mark the day this year, let us remember that it is up to us to do whatever we can to make sure that ageing in our country becomes more of a celebration than it is a challenge.

Sola Mahoney, the author of this article, is an advocate for the rights of older persons. 

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