A more inclusive and sustainable society needs to put elderly people at the core of its model, supporting a cultural shift and redefining the role of our elders.

Ageism is a phenomenon which describes people that think, feel and act differently towards others, based on age. By 2030, 1 in 6 people in the world will be aged 60 years or over. Older adults often suffer age-related discrimination, which can also be self-directed. Here are some concrete initiatives that social sector organisations can get inspired from.

Imagine if people were asking you if ‘you are sure to really understand what is being said’ or if it’s ‘needed to speak slower’ each time they are talking to you. This is what many older people are experiencing in their day-to-day life, sometimes from close circles like family and friends. This phenomenon, which is quite widespread and not recognized enough, can lead to lower self-esteem for those who are concerned, increased social isolation, loneliness or even depression.

According to the latest report on ageism of the World Health Organization, every second person in the world is believed to hold ageist attitudes – a phenomenon that increased during the Covid-19 crisis where age was sometimes used as a criteria for access to medical care or rights’ restrictions. From the beginning of the pandemic, older people have been stereotyped in the public discourse while their freedom of choice has been even less taken into consideration. In many Western countries, this was particularly true for older people living in care centres as they really suffered from the isolation – with dramatic consequences for their mental health.

Break the stigma around older adults

Ageism is a negative attitude towards all age groups and it goes on for the whole life. It means that even as a kid, you can be faced with ageism, as much as when you are an older person. The problem with older adults is not only the other’s vision, it is also the perception they have of themselves. Some of them consider that they are lagging behind, so they limit themselves in their socialisation with other people. 

As a social organisation, it’s important to break the stigma around older adults working on the perceptions of older age. In France, the social organisation Oldyssey changes the perception of older people through short portrait videos widely distributed on social networks. In those portraits you discover older adults from all over the world through the lens of a passion, a skill or even a recipe, in order to bring generations together. To fight the preconceived idea that older adults are no longer useful for the society, it’s important both to change the general public perception of the older age while supporting older people in building a new life chapter. For instance, the social enterprise Alphonse is supporting older people in preparing a life project for retirement, through coaching sessions and sourcing of new activities to do.

Let older adults decide for themselves

These past two years and the Covid-19 pandemic have raised many questions around mental health’s perception in our society and the stereotypes that still persist around it: How can we ensure healthy and decent ageing for all? How to fight ageism and stigma around older adults? How can we guarantee the freedom of choice for older adults? 

As social organisations, it’s important to enable older adults to be decision-makers for themselves as long as possible. Created by a Doctor in sociology of ageing, Arbitryum is a digital platform coupled with an artificial intelligence that collects and analyses data from a wide variety of stakeholders (managers, employees, carers, patients, etc.) in care homes for the elderly with the aim to improve the quality of life of their residents.

As well as its main activity, Arbitryum created a new digital platform during the Covid_19 crisis. The solution, Entraide, enables professionals and volunteers from the social and health sector to exchange ideas on common challenges and topics raised by the crisis. This creates a platform for everyone to get answers to their questions, to receive training or to share their good practices between peers and anonymously. 

Maintain intergenerational bonds

“Loneliness” is the painful subjective feeling – or “social pain” – that results from a disparity between desired and actual social connections. “Social isolation” is the objective state of having a small network of relationships and thus few or infrequent interactions with others. Loneliness is a really prevalent factor for depression in older age and can lead to serious health-related consequences. Maintaining intergenerational bonds is a way to fight loneliness for older adults while contributing to strengthening the understanding between generations.

In the Netherlands, Humanitas is a one-of-a-kind retirement home where elderly people cohabit with university students. In exchange for free housing, students have to devote at least 30 hours a month of their time to senior guests, including helping them with meals, teaching them how to use technological devices, celebrating birthdays, and more. The centre offers different types of services, from short to long term stay with all the necessary medical and psychosocial care. Activities are organised on a daily basis and may be open to non-resident elderly people to combat their isolation. This successful practice of intergenerational coexistence brings benefits both for seniors, in alleviating social isolation, and students, in providing free housing and a sense of connection with older generations.

Unleash the power of technologies to support older adults’ mental health

Digital is useful as long as it frees up human time where humans have added value. In Spain, the mobile telecare project aims to increase the autonomy and safety of older people with disabilities and other vulnerable populations when they are away from home, using a mobile application or a connected watch. Thanks to new communication technologies, this service allows the elderly, people with loss of autonomy to be taken care of by professionals trained in emergency situations. Developed by the Spanish Red Cross in collaboration with the Vodafone Foundation and the Tecnologías Sociales Foundation (TECSOS), this service is guaranteed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, regardless of the person’s location, thus ensuring greater autonomy for people, especially those living alone.

In care centres for older adults, the French Red Cross created a digital package for mental health during the COVID-19 crisis. In order not to focus on a single device, different tools have been tested to respond in a personalised way to the needs of older people. This was done through simple things such as the introduction of tablets. These tablets made it possible to recreate social interactions, both inside and outside the home, with relatives. At the same time, the French Red Cross found new ways to respond to the stress and anxiety of residents through the use of virtual reality headsets that enable older people to discover different worlds from nature to historical places, or to live unusual experiences such as swimming with dolphins. 

There is no such thing as ‘one typical older adult’ – as much as there is no typical ‘solution’. Whatever the approach you want to have towards elderly people, remember to put the human at the core of your programmes and to listen to the needs of those who are first concerned.

To learn more about the subject, you can read the Red Social Innovation publication: Mental Health of older adults, how to prevent the risks of an ageist society.