Desmond O’Neill: The success and opportunities arising from population ageing


There is an extra uplift from spring conferences which mirrors the freshness of the season. My own traverse started in Vienna with a reflection on how the hegemony of the English language impoverishes our access to German speaking culture, distancing us from a rich spirit of inquiry that suffuses Germanophone congresses. Philosophical and cultural topics lie remarkably easily alongside the more technical aspects of gerontological science, in a collegial and relaxed ambience.

And so it was at the combined Austrian, Swiss and German Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics in March, where my own contribution on cultural gerontology was paired with a fascinating presentation on the role of games in life-span and ageing, particularly chess.

This was an eye-opener for me, adding insights from games theorists such Huizinga—who coined the phrase Homo Ludens in 1938—and Caillois, which augmented my perspectives on our current research strand in aesthetics and health.

The rest of the conference covered a wide range of areas, from forensic gerontology to a broad thrust on the interaction between public health and ageing. Of the embarrassment of cultural riches in Vienna, I plumped for a fascinating exhibition on the former Hapsburg province of Galicia.

The persistence of memory from this populous, polyglot, and impoverished province, peopled by Poles, Ruthenes, and Jews, was a reminder of progress Europe has made in just under a century, but also that the Austro-Hungarian empire fostered better relationships between these groups than virtually all succeeding regimes.

Thence to Dublin in April for the largest scientific conference on ageing in Europe this decade, the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics, European Region. As local lead, I was delighted at the positive response by delegates to the congress theme, Unlocking the Demographic Dividend. All too often a miserabilist and apocalyptic tone infects the discourse on ageing, and it was great to promote a focus on the success and opportunities arising from population ageing.

The Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, caught the spirit beautifully in the opening address. With a humorous allusion to his impending 64th birthday, not only did he point to the gains in the increased longevity of ourselves and our families, but also to the cultural and social gains. Of particular interest was his awareness of the economic possibilities inherent in population ageing, including a reference to our osteo-diaspora: over 50% of the artificial hips in world are made in Ireland.

The conference was a fascinating mix of gerontology—the broad sciences of ageing—and geriatric medicine, with all keynote speakers from Europe. Of particular interest to me was the clear emergence of transport and ageing as a strong theme, with several sessions dedicated to the topic, including a brilliant paper by Charles Musselwhite on the narratives created by older house-bound people arising from the view from their windows.

And on to Nottingham for the Spring Meeting of the British Geriatrics Society. With a membership of over 3,000, the society attests to the continuing rise in profile and presence of geriatricians within the NHS. I was paired with Rowan Harwood in a “Meet the Professors” session, and I was blown away by the depth, breadth, and vision of his work on the experience of hospital for people with dementia in Nottingham.

My own talk was an interesting opportunity to reflect on the academic aspirations when working in the Irish equivalent of an NHS post. Entitled the Pleasures and Perils of Academic Promiscuity, I could see some relevance for the UK, given the pernicious effects of the REF on clinical specialties.

A myopic vision on molecular medicine means that academic development in these areas in the UK may in the short term be sustained through NHS developments, as evidenced by the recent BGS Rising Star, Dr Roman Romero-Ortuno.

A memorable and entertaining aspect of the meeting was the crafting of the President’s after-dinner speech from a Twitter feed, #youknowyoureageriatrician. This was an inspired move by David Oliver, a tyro of blogging, including the King’s Fund  and The BMJ, and Twitter @mancunianmedic and it unleashed a great sense of community among geriatricians both inside and outside the UK.

The tweets illustrated the sense of humour that is surely one of the factors underlying the research finding that geriatricians have very high levels of professional satisfaction and neatly showcased what we can gain from astute use of social media.

Desmond (Des) O’Neill is a geriatrician and cultural gerontologist in Dublin.