Desmond O’Neill: The age friendly university

Desmond O'NeillAll innovation is characterised by many false starts, but occasionally an event feels like the real deal, a sure sense of a phase shift in our world. This was the case earlier this month when I found myself sharing the speakers’ platform with the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny, at the launch of an international initiative on age friendly universities, led by Dublin City University (DCU).

This relatively young university has a reputation for deftly combining the aspirational with the pragmatic. With a track record of nimble adaptation and burgeoning academic achievement, for those who place any trust in such rankings, it is not surprising that it has made the “Top 50 Under 50” list of universities established since 1962. Those also launching the initiative included the University of Strathclyde and Arizona State University.

Previous attempts by universities to engage with older people have been limited and short lived, and often undermined by a deadening sense of worthiness. They seemed to provide a service to the “elderly” as some separate and “deserving” group rather than developing a partnership which views older adults as an important group whose participation in university life is enriching for both sides. Similarly, some university programmes in ageing research give a sense of making gestures to older people as a politically correct appendix to their research.

The DCU approach has been marked by a guiding philosophy that the collective ageing of our population represents a longevity dividend which easily outweighs the societal challenges posed by the complexities of ageing. Perhaps even more critical to their success is their appreciable amount of groundwork on developing courses and associated activities which have caught the imagination and participation of older Irish people, as evidenced by the demographic profile of the audience packed into the lecture theatre for the launch.

The ten principles of age friendly university developed by DCU have a strong intergenerational flavour, and it is reassuring that there is a close correlation between the aspirational and what is actually offered. In addition to flexible courses, some offered online (DCU is the national centre for distance learning), there are some intriguing fitness and wellness programmes which have an all age flavour including HeartSmart, BreatheSmart, and DiabetesHealthSteps. An open day for older adults, “A Taste of DCU,” was a wild success, packed to capacity and leading to many taking up courses.

One of the other panel speakers was tangible proof of what can be gained from this approach. Kathy Leahy had worked in a contract catering company all of her life, and her exposure to the “Taste of DCU” led to enrolment in a communications course. In addition, she had also taken on a part time role in a fashion show on an Irish television station following a strong performance during Active Ageing Week. Her sincerity, maturity, and energy shone through and gave a very grounded flavour to the initiative.

In discussion with DCU staff, the benefits of mixing ages work in many ways, with the older and younger finding complementary support and encouragement from each other on courses where they study together. I was reminded of Sir Francis Bacon’s advice in Of Youth and Age: “Certainly it is good to compound employments of both; for that will be good for the present, because the virtues of either age, may correct the defects of both; and good for succession, that young men may be learners, while men in age are actors.”

In more contemporary terms, this spirit mirrors the successful cross fertilisation of youth and age in most recent album from the Chieftains (mean age 69), Voices of the Ages, where they jam with Paolo Nuttini, Lisa Hannigan, Imelda May, and the Civil Wars.

The innovative spirit of partnership also seems to infect the research programme in DCU: for example, their highly original research programme looking at memory problems in later life through an approach anchored in the symptoms and concerns of the older people has just gained major European research funding.

The profile of ageing in Ireland has risen considerably over the last decade, with a huge impetus given by the support of a philanthropic foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, for research and advocacy for ageing throughout the island. Although occasionally the promise of large grants has led to uncollegial activity among a previously open research community, the overall effect has been very positive in raising the status and credibility of gerontological research.

However, the DCU initiative has a sense of a genuine partnership, and although the research portfolio in DCU in ageing research may not yet be as extensive as some of the other universities, they have set the tempo and format by which other universities should engage with older people in Ireland.

In the final analysis, perhaps the most striking change is that a key sector of Irish society now recognizes that older people are an important resource, and is finally addressing the reality their relative absence in the life of our universities and institutes of technology impoverishes us all.

Desmond O’Neill is a consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine in Dublin, and is a member of the external advisory panel of the age friendly university initiative.