Instituto de Gobierno y Políticas Públicas. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Instituto del Envejecimiento. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Are all old people the same? Can the same policies be applied to them in a uniform way? Can they take part actively in the policies affecting them or do the conditions in which they live justify their being made the passive recipients of care rather than active players in the policies HIGHLIGHTSProfile: Joan SubiratsProfile: Mercè Pérez Salanova
directed at them? Can the revolution that is being ushered in by the Internet, and its applications in the world of creation, production and participation, have an effect?
The “Active ageing. Citizenship and participation” project, which is one of the five projects selected in the Proyectos Cero call for proposals on ageing, backed and financed jointly by the Fundación General CSIC and Obra Social «la Caixa», basically aims —insofar as is possible— to answer these questions. And it intends to do so by identifying and exploring different patterns and processes allowing the active participation of older people in the public policies that affect them, by listening directly to the central actors. At the same time, it aims to explore and identify the potential that new information and communication technologies have to empower older people, making them the key players and not mere recipients of measures and support devised without their involvement.
Our starting point is the idea that elderly people want to participate actively and be integrated in society. A society which is facing the century with the concern about how to ensure that needs and expectations of all, whatever their age, gender or condition, can be met in a balanced and equitable way. This makes it necessary to recognise and encourage the big contribution the elderly make to the country’s welfare, and the role they have played —and can continue playing— in relation to the people around them, the communities they live in, to the country as a whole, and the world.
These values and wishes contrast with a reality that treats the elderly as passive recipients of care, rather than as autonomous subjects, and much less as people able to develop their autonomy critically. This project starts out from a series of normative elements (values) which we understand have to inspire substantive and operational aspects of the policies that have greatest impact on this group of citizens.
To achieve its goals, the project incorporates various methodological tools. Its first task is to try to make an accurate diagnostic assessment of the changes that are taking place in the Our starting point is the idea that old people want to participate actively and be integrated in society
make-up of this group of elderly people, so as to recognise their heterogeneity. It then aims to lay solid foundations for proposals that the project can subsequently deploy in relation to the public policies that the different institutions and entities aim at this population segment. A set of four of Spain’s regions have been chosen (Andalusia, Catalonia, Valencia and Madrid) for an analysis of the initiatives put in place over the last ten years. With the opinions of key stakeholders, the real reference on the topic, to help us adequately develop the analytical framework within which to work, before moving on to the more concrete work of analysing the specific reality in various different urban and rural environments.
There are four issues to which the project pays particular attention. One of these is the analysis of what we term “participation.” One of our concerns is that an excessively narrow view is taken of this umbrella concept when it is used as a starting point and it is often interpreted without due rigour. At the same time, we would like to look in more detail at demographic aspects to identify trends and changes of cycle adequately. We are also interested in taking a close look at the difference between rural and urban environments. And we should also not overlook the methodological solidity of the project when what is at stake is the establishment of social innovation proposals that can improve the orientation of public policies for this rapidly expanding group.
One of the project’s key premises is that the technological revolution brought by the Internet is changing people’s lifestyles. And a research project that does not factor in information and communications technologies could reach entirely the wrong conclusions. For us this is a central topic and, in fact, we will dedicate cross-cutting attention to ICTs throughout the project, and above all, in its social and technological innovation perspectives. We will now try to give readers an outline of the theoretical and conceptual foundations on which our project is based.
New times, new situations
There is a clear contradiction between the rapid pace of change we are experiencing and the tenacity with which we cling to a litany of prejudices on issues that no longer look even remotely similar to how they did just a few years ago. For example, we assimilate late adulthood and old age with physical and intellectual decline. And we stick to time horizons on this topic which are being refuted day after day by relentlessly extending life expectancies, ever longer intellectual and life stages, and the constant presence of active older adults in all types of activities and processes. Every day we are discovering that people can reach remarkably old age maintaining a high degree of adaptability and flexibility to change. And we have ever greater difficulty locating the vital milestones distinguishing children from young people, youths from adults, or adults from the elderly, and things get even more complicated when we talk of men and women, one generation or another, people living in major cities or sparsely populated areas, or in the case of people whose work is more or less based on physical and manual tasks.
The shortcomings and narrowness of the prevailing narrative have positioned the elderly as fragile, needing care, with difficulty understanding and moving, very limited in terms of their possibilities for leisure and enjoyment, basically unproductive and destined to end their days in an institution specialising in caring for this dependent population group. Against this backdrop it comes as no surprise that public policy aimed at this large group of people is basically obsolete and unsatisfactory to its beneficiaries. We need to rethink these perceptions with them, trying to reconstruct an idea of older people as being in the fullness of life, overcoming the fragmentation of problems and responses, avoiding treating them like children (denying the autonomy of individuals who suffer from significant limitations to their functional independence) as the illusion of a golden stage (unreal and only accessible in part to just a few). The way in which this precise reality is to be rethought is from a fuller conception of citizenship, in which we can all fit, whatever our age, gender or background.
We need a view of citizenship in which we can progress towards a society in which we all have a place, each in terms of his or her own specificities and dignity. This means recognising the specificities implied by age differences, emotional/sexual choices, beliefs and cultural norms, along with gender and capabilities. The values we consider basic to grounding this vision of citizenship relate to personal autonomy, equality and diversity, each of these concepts being understood from an integrating perspective, an articulation that is not without its tensions and difficulties. And it is from this conception that we have proposed this project, trying to relate these values to those special characteristics that imply a new vision of the role of elderly people in our society (see Figure 1).
The value of personal autonomy
Being old does not equate to being useless. Old people want to continue to feel —and be— useful and independent as long as possible. This not only relates to each individual’s specific state of health and the conditions in which they live, but also relates to their being useful to society, performing socially useful tasks and functions; and elderly people often fail to get recognition for the work they are already doing. It also means that every life stage is suited to learning and teaching, to sharing knowledge. The important role of the elderly as both students and teachers is self-evident. We all have plenty to learn. On this point it is worth noting that Spain lags behind its peers in terms of adult education. We talk of the knowledge society, but there are still a lot of citizens who find it difficult to read a book or who do not know where to start when they are sat down in front of a computer.
It is clear that we are making progress on this subject, but it is necessary to persevere, understanding that full citizenship and digital access are going to be ever more closely bound up together. We need to invest in appropriately trained instructors, in devices suitable for the visually impaired and those with difficulties using their hands, as well as in hardware and classrooms. Progress on ergonomics needs to be accompanied by dedicated venues and people specialised in teaching elderly people how to access information and communication technologies. The objective, it should be recalled, is for everyone to retain their autonomy, i.e. the ability to look after themselves. Also, that people are able to utilise the knowledge resources, accessibility, and interaction that these technologies allow and that will further enable as time goes by. This project aims to have a clear and concrete impact on all these areas.
The value of equality and living conditions
It is clear that Spain has improved greatly over the last thirty years in terms of the conditions in which people live. And this is to be welcomed. But we also know that inequalities continue to exist and these affect the very oldest in particular. The data available indicate that old people today account for over 20% of the population. Almost 60% are women. Many of these people —mostly women— live alone. Almost 30% of the over-65s have some sort of disability. Recent studies have shown that the risk of poverty is almost twice as high in this sector of the population as in other age groups. One in three old people are in this situation, which particularly affects widows and old women living alone. While it is true that there are old people who enjoy good levels of well being and financial security, we should nevertheless be concerned about those who face inequalities, discrimination, exclusion or whose living conditions are precarious.
We must also not overlook the fact that all too often the most vulnerable people seem unable to make their voices heard. These elderly people living in precarious conditions have the right to be citizens like the rest of us, although they almost always remain invisible. And to do so, we understand that the key is to work on specifics, as this project aims to do, that is to say, on mechanisms that allow old people to make themselves heard in the public policies that affect them.
The value of diversity: recognition and dignity
In general, and in the specific case of elderly people, guaranteeing personal autonomy for people approaching or confronting the last stage of their lives, means paying particular attention to education, housing, and their ability to face their situation independently and critically, as well as to issues relating to health and mobility. We know that not everyone reaches certain life stages in the same economic and cultural conditions, or in terms of their rootedness and social integration. Dealing in a diversified way with situations in which there are clear inequalities One important aspect of the project is the relationship between old people and information and communication technologies, not as passive recipients of the benefits of these technologies, but as active and independent users
between old people is a guarantee that we are tackling the problem in the right way to ensure equality for this group. Therefore, we should make clear what it means to be a citizen and old person in a country that should be increasingly able to recognise and treat the whole diversity of life choices, sexual orientations, cultures and religions with equal dignity.
This requires a strong commitment by Spanish society to the future of old people. After many decades of authoritarian rule, manipulation and concealment of the public will, for the last thirty years the country now benefits from a political system that, while not perfect, is that which best allows us to express our views and represent our will. However, this commitment to democracy should not overshadow the fact that here and now it needs to be improved and made more receptive to the voice of those who are unheard. Making it better able to respond to the needs and demands of those whose capabilities and resources are most limited. And it is clear that many older people feel their voices to be going unheard and that they receive little support meeting their needs and confronting their difficulties. We need to advance towards a substantial improvement in the forms and organisations for participation open to older people in Spain. This participation not only requires their specific voice to be heard, that they express their demands and points of view, and ensure progress can be made on the transformation and improvement of older people’s quality of life.
There seems no doubt that there is huge potential for older people’s participation in Spain, but it is important that we understand that participating does not mean just talking, discussing and debating, important though this may be. Participating also implies specific progress in improving and transforming old people’s social reality in Spain. To achieve this it is necessary for the existing participatory bodies —which probably need strengthening— not only to be informed about what people want to do by the authorities, but that elderly people, their organisations and representatives, can share in the definition of the problems that affect them and in the search for solutions or opportunities for improvement.
Collective involvement and citizens’ commitment. The role of ICTs
Elderly people’s full integration in Spanish society involves more than just guaranteeing dignified living conditions, enjoying individual independence and having their personal and collective specificities recognised. When we say that older people have the right to enjoy full citizenship and participate actively and fully in our society, this means that elderly people cannot continue to be simply treated as objects to be looked after and managed. It means they have to be present in the social and political dynamics of every city and every community. In many cities and towns councils have been set up to represent old people. We do not mean to say that the topic of participation and involvement in collective matters is one that only affects old people. But, with this caveat, it does not mean that there are no specificities proper to old people as a group in the more general problem of improving the quality of our democracy’s workings. Taking part in community life is, from our point of view, as important as being in good health and having sufficient resources to live in dignity. A healthy and active person is, at the same time, someone who is involved in what is around them, in individual and collective well-being. We should therefore make better use of these potentials, strengths and capabilities. In this civic and participatory sphere as well, we often see old people being treated as retired, in the sense of a withdrawal from life. We need to stimulate the active role of older people in sport, emotional ties, concern for improving the educational and technological capacities, obviously. But we also need to stimulate and channel activism, the willingness to do things and to serve that old people have in public spaces, in the voluntary sector, in their ability to do things for other people.
Should we not be thinking of ways to utilise the potential experience and enthusiasm of so many useful people who have time, resources and abilities? Very positive experiences exist, in which, in an intergenerational way, young people, adults and the elderly have worked together to promote the initiatives their communities need. This project aims to showcase these experiences, systematise them and promote cross learning between groups and institutions. One important aspect of the project is the relationship between old people and information and communication technologies, not as passive recipients of the benefits of these technologies, but as active and independent users. Understanding the Internet and the social transformations it is producing is one of the cornerstones of our research and its possible technology spin-offs.