Staying connected and active as we get older is vital to maintaining our mental and physical health, a top expert tells Marjorie Brennan.
COLIN MILNER is a man on a mission — to challenge preconceived notions about ageing and ensure older people are encouraged to lead active and productive lives. Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Ageing, and a pioneer of the active-ageing industry in Canada and the US, says that while people are living for longer, it is key that they get the most out of those extra years.
“The question is how do we earn healthy years? It’s not really very complicated. We are basically animals; we are designed to move. The first step should be to get up off your chair, and, like you did when you were a kid, go outdoors, do things, experiment, look for ways to engage with life.”
While exercise is a significant factor in ensuring we stay healthy into old age, Milner says that this on its own isn’t enough. “Active ageing is not just about physical activity, it is about being engaged in life in a multitude of different ways. Just by getting out, you start to impact everything from your emotional health to your spiritual health, to your physical health. You become socially engaged and all of these things lead to better quality of life.”
He cites the ‘blue zones’, a term coined by author Dan Buettner for certain parts of the world where people live for longer.
“In those areas, for example, Sardinia in Italy, it is less about going to the gym and more about being active in your community. At the end of the day, a lot of it comes back to how you personally view your ageing process. We know that if you have a negative perception of ageing, it can cut 7.6 years off your life.”
With the age of entitlement to the State pension (non-contributory) set to rise to 67 in 2021 and 68 from 2028, Irish people will find themselves working for longer. However, in the US it is common for people to keep on working into their 70s. Milner says this is often out of necessity but that it is also important that older people have the choice to continue working.
“In the US, one of the main reasons people are working later in life is simply to be able to afford things like their medical bills. Lots of Canadians are also working later in life, and a lot of it is because they want to. What are you going to do when you retire? Spend 30 or 40 years playing golf? Probably not. For many people, their purpose in life is centred around their employment. The age of retirement was set in the 1800s when the average life expectancy was 47. As we have added years, we haven’t really bumped up the age of retirement a whole lot. Maybe that is one of the things we need to reinvent.”
Milner says the world of work also has to undergo a sea change to tackle ageism and utilise the talents and experience of older people rather than casting them aside.
“We recently did a white paper on the ageing workforce and one of the things we found is that only 2% of companies in the US have a policy in place for 50-plus workers. But the growth rate in potential employees among the young will be flat for at least the next decade, where amongst the 50-plus group, it is a rapidly growing area. In the past, it was a case of ‘well, you are older, you are a burden and you are going to cost the company more money, and you are not capable of doing the job so we will look for younger talent’. The research has shown that is not the case. I might take more time to make a decision but in many instances I make better decisions than a younger person would. I also have years of experience.
“Of course, ageism is a double-edged sword, there is also discrimination against younger people in some areas as well.”
As for the challenges facing older people, Milner says one of the main ones is maintaining mental health.
“As you get older, maybe your children have moved away, friends and family have passed away, you have health issues, you are no longer working or you are socially isolated, and depression can be a major issue. By 2020, the World Health Organisation projects that depression will be the second leading cause of premature death and disability worldwide.”
He says a concerted societal effort, including a shake-up of public policy, is needed.
“Look at countries like the UK, which now has a minister of loneliness. This is a first step to addressing a major issue. In the US, 43% of the population will at some stage experience social isolation and it will impact the healthcare system there by over $7bn. If I was running a healthcare system, my first question would be how do we break down the silos so that young and old engage with each other?
“We need to look at countries like Japan, where the ministry for health incentivises people to build social connections, so that a lack of caregivers will be replaced by people taking care of each other.”
When it comes to taking his own advice, Milner, 57, says that as he has become busier and had to travel more, he has replaced his favourite activity of football with cycling. “No matter where I am, I try to find a bike-share programme, hop on a bike and experience the country I’m in. Not only am I getting exercise but it is stimulating me emotionally and mentally. There are always factors that can impede you from doing things. What you need to do is rise above those. When it comes to your health, you only have one go around, so it is crucial you make the best of it.”