Can we redefine old age?
New Zealanders aged over 65 currently make up an eighth of the population. Within 20 years they will have risen to almost a quarter of the population. It is the largest growth for this group in our recorded history. And as people live longer, the number of over-80s is expected to more than double by 2035. Meanwhile, the trend to smaller families means there will be fewer young people to support and care for the elderly. Innovative and creative ways are needed to help people live well as they age.
The impacts of ageing include isolation, reduced mobility, increased rates of disability, loss of independent living and an increase in health problems. Researchers across the University of Auckland are looking at a variety of means to reduce these impacts and enhance the quality of life for the increasing number of elderly New Zealanders.
Martin Connolly, Freemasons’ Professor of Geriatric Medicine, is leading several large research initiatives in New Zealand and the UK in older people’s health. Areas being investigated include the management of chronic medical conditions, the quality of residential aged care, how to reduce avoidable hospital admissions, smoking-related lung disease and frailty. Dr Michal Boyd, a gerontology nurse and Senior Lecturer with the School of Nursing, is involved in research into innovative models of care that could be used in aged residential facilities and end-of-life care for people with dementia.
We are finding quite a number in this age group are actually improving – life gets better for them. So what are those key characteristics that lead to successful ageing?
At the School of Population Health Gerontology Group, Professor Ngaire Kerse is leading research into what it takes to age well. One of the goals is to improve the quality of life by developing strategies to reduce falls and increase physical activity and meaningful social engagement.
Associate Professor Bruce MacDonald and his colleagues are investigating the use of robots, both to enhance quality of life for the elderly and to address the future shortage of carers. Pets are known to reduce stress and loneliness but owning one is not always practical for elderly who are unwell or in care. Instead, a robotic simulation of a pet is being trialled at Auckland’s Selwyn Foundation dementia daycare centres and in people’s homes to see whether it can reduce stress for those with dementia and their family caregivers. Another type of robot is being tested in homes and clinical settings to perform a range of routine healthcare tasks. These include reminding patients when to take their medication, providing exercises and entertainment, monitoring general health and calling for help in an emergency.
Through approaches such as these, we have the opportunity to redefine old age as a fulfilling stage of life, without burden to our diminishing younger generations.
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Carly Murrell, Development Manager, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences
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