Active Ageing and quality of life: mitigating the impact of the pandemic

Rhodes>ISER>Latest News


The Covid-19 pandemic sweeping across the globe has put older people most at risk – physically, but also emotionally. The dramatic impact that the measures taken are having on their well-being and mental health cannot be underestimated.  With a keen understanding that family life is one of the most important indicators of wellbeing and happiness in the older generation, we must find creative ways to ensure that we as society provide effective support through this period of risk, challenge and change – while recognising the valued role this resilient generation play in our communities.

The International Longevity Centre Global Alliance (ILC-GA) has expressed its concern for the impact of the pandemic on older people, their families and communities. The Global Alliance’s Position Statement on COVID-19 (ILC-GA 2020) calls on communities to encourage appropriate physical distancing practices, foster social solidarity through actions of kindness and empathy, to embrace technology and other creative responses and to ensure the effective oversight and time limitation on any suspension of civil liberties.

The statement also advocates that measures taken to manage the health crisis should be relevant to and respectful of older people’s lived experience, while denouncing ageism and stressing the importance of dignity for older people.  Importantly, the Alliance notes that the pandemic has brought to the fore the many social inequalities in society: ‘the world must stand united’ to pool knowledge and resources equitably in the concerted fight against Covid-19. 

The importance of family life
Research study ‘The Best and Worst Times of Life for South Africans: Evidence of universal reference standards in evaluations of personal well-being using Bernheim’s ACSA’ provides rich insights into what matters for different generations when they think about their quality of life and personal well-being.  The category of family life overshadows the self and personal events, which might be a reflection of traditional collectivist values in South African society that foreground family and kinship as the most important of social institutions.  When describing positive anchors, the oldest group’s descriptions focused on ‘family’, financial security (‘income’) and contentment with ‘self’. Members of the oldest age category are most likely to assess their lives according to family life.

While the critical factors of social networks, family support, and social integration in community life are challenged by Covid-19, with technology connecting us, social distancing need not mean social isolation. As emphasised by the World Health Organisation (WHO), if you need to keep your parents, grandparents, elderly friends and neighbours safe by not visiting them, try and talk to them frequently to ensure they don’t feel isolated. Check in regularly on those living alone or in care homes, not only to ensure that their physical needs are being met, but also simply to reinforce that they are valued, loved and connected.

Preserving Active Aging opportunities

Active Ageing is the concept of optimising opportunities for health, participation, and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age as defined by the WHO. Social interaction, physical activity, a nutritious diet, life-long learning, meaningful occupations, and volunteering are recipes for success.  We need to focus on creating opportunities, even virtually, to enhance not only the lived experience of older members of society, but also the lives of their families and caregivers.

A vital role in society

As António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General emphasised in his Policy Brief on the impact of COVID-19 on elderly persons, efforts to protect older persons ‘should not overlook the many variations within this category, their incredible resilience and positivity, and the multiple roles they have in society, including as caregivers, volunteers and community leaders.’

According to the ‘grandmother hypothesis’, the earliest grandmothers lived to an age beyond their reproductive years so they could look after their grandchildren, which gave their daughters the freedom to forage for food for their offspring. In short, grandmothering is critical for longevity and for the survival of grandchildren. This is certainly true in South Africa, where many grandmothers, challenged by the impact of HIV on their communities, are the caretakers of grandchildren. We also have a large representation of the elderly in rural areas as the young productive population migrates to urban centres. It is important to provide support to the elderly in these areas, particularly women who are more likely to live in poverty and without access to healthcare in older age, as emphasised by the WHO.

Fostering solidarity between generations

In contemporary society, mutual support and respect can still grow with the exchange of expertise and experience between generations. While many Active Agers welcome the opportunity to learn from their grandchildren of the benefits of the digital age, the coronavirus has also prompted millennials to consult the resilient older generation to learn how they coped with crises such as the 1918 influenza and the two World Wars.

An article in the International Journal for Equity in Health argues that despite the current COVID-19 circumstances, we must promote intergenerational solidarity by fostering connectedness. Caring and protecting older people is not only about respecting their dignity and autonomy. It opens up invaluable possibilities for all generations to engage with collective memories and traditions – promoting the exchange of skills, knowledge and understanding.

The pandemic will eventually pass. However, life may never be the same again in the post-Covid-19 era. As alluded to in the Global Alliance statement, the most positive scenarios for the future see the new era as both a challenge and an opportunity to do things differently on a grander scale. There are hopes that the public health crisis has focused our minds on building a more co-operative and compassionate global order for tomorrow. A world that will succeed in achieving equal opportunities and well-being for people of all ages and social backgrounds.