For its inaugural year 2016, the National Institute on Ageing (NIA) at Ryerson University in Toronto looks to have set the stage well for its future vision. Closing with a November conference – Re-think Ageing – that as the song goes, covered the waterfront with a splash of speakers; the event hitting the mark at a rapid pace, presented a full range of elements in the current social narrative on ageing.
Over two days, constructed around the four pillars in the National Seniors Strategy for Canada, the conference managed to convey the breadth and diversity of this dialogue that affects the lives of not only seniors, but the lives of entire families. As I sat through day one, listening to the presentations as well as the audience conversations, I couldn’t help but think what a pity this performance couldn’t be adapted to play out meaningfully to a younger demographic.
Why? Because as with all conferences, while there is a lot to absorb from the main discourse, there are usually crowd murmurs of offshoot thinking that underscore it, and on this day, at least within range of the voices I heard, there was the notion that the impact from the concerns of an ageing society is an inter-generational matter. I was pleased to know that others tapped in to this, including a couple of people who wrapped this around questions posed to a panel.
One of the goals the NIA set out to achieve with this conference was to “broaden the policy dialogue on key issues by purposefully including older adults in the conversation…”; that is to say others who are not directly working in the field of ageing such as academics, service providers and product developers.
Ageing and a personal story to share …
On that score, from what I could determine, from speaking to those people I did meet with, there were not that many people at the conference who might have declared themselves as purely “interested older adults”. However, this is not to say that the conference failed to produce an engaging conversation with a mainstream public appeal; because after all, even if you are working with older adults directly or indirectly, you can’t help but want to share your personal stories.
And that is what people did. Every person I met had a personal story. At whatever age they were and whatever kind of work they were doing – practitioners, policy makers or a politician for that matter all had something to share. I met a number of professionals with business interests as well as a few who do volunteer work in their communities, and those who want to develop a further career in the field of ageing or elder care services.
Since the early 2000’s, building on my work with people in their later life journeys in the career services field, I have invested my time and concentration over the last seven years as a researcher, advisor, presenter and blogger on the multi-faceted subject of ageing and longevity, its business and social aspects. As a result, by attending the NIA conference, I wasn’t looking for an Ageing 101 overview, nor was I looking for more of a series of scholarly lectures.
This is what was pleasing to me about this conference; it was not just a group of academic insiders talking at us. If I had one critical viewpoint, it would be that the design structure of the breakout conversations based on the “idea bank” presentations was too short or fast for what it tried to accomplish. The set-up of the room, the size of the audience, as well as the facilitation elements did not lend to the best output for the compressed timeframes allotted.
Are we generations apart from caring enough?
So what did I walk away with to help me “Re-think Ageing”, which was the title of this NIA event? Perhaps I’m too close to the subject, but it seems to me that it is largely because of the sheer population numbers in the shift of ageing demographics, that the 65-plus generation has a vested interest in understanding where this journey is going to take us over the next decade and beyond.
As it often tends to go however, the re-think ageing conversation can’t simply exist in a discussion by seniors about seniors. If you accept that in Canada, the first of the gen-x turned 50 this year, surely the conversation about the issues related to what I prefer to call a longevity society, should engage them. But for those I speak to currently between 37 and 50, I don’t get the sense they see themselves as part of a seniors strategy – at least not yet. Tempus fugit you know.
Let me take a leaf from the notes I made, listening to the opening address to the NIA conference by Dr. Samir Sinha (co-author of the National Seniors Strategy). He said, among several items, that older people want to be seen “outside the health care lens”, and that terms like “dependency ratios should be removed from the vocabulary”. As he thus suggests, this is not constructive to that inter-generational conversation I referred to at the front end to this post.
If our experience with ageing is to project over a longer period of life then a new vocabulary will need to emerge, one that transcends what is still used to frame the big re-think, one that engages upcoming generations. Are we really that many generations apart from caring enough? Should the National Institute on Ageing make a bold move to take the re-think on a road show across Canada to engage creatively, an inter-generational contribution to the National Seniors Strategy?