25/07/2012 13:03 BST | Updated 24/09/2012 06:12 BST

Why Our Ageing Population Is an Asset Not a Burden

The growing number of older people throughout Europe offers us an immense opportunity. Older people, after all, constitute an army within which there is knowledge, talent and ability. Many older people are already crucial to our businesses and services. But in some cases, especially in the more developed economies of the EU, outdated attitudes and practices around work and retirement have tended to marginalise older people and turn them, often prematurely, from being contributors to being recipients. The opposite to what is needed as countries strive to find the magic formula by which their flagging economies can be revitalized.

The point is that there is, regardless of many media portrayals of older people, no problem arising from ageing in itself. Rather there is a political challenge, the response to which must start with the question that asks 'how can we better harness longevity as an asset'?

At the new Age Research Centre within Coventry University we are exploring the answers to this question - poised to give sound advice as to how politicians and others can rise to the challenge. One of our objectives is to make the case, backed up by clear evidence, for a new appreciation of both the actual and potential contribution made by older people to our economic and social life.

But we recognise at the same time, the harsh reality that with older age comes both physical and cognitive decline. Regrettably, policy and practice frameworks, underpinned sometimes by ageist attitudes, may have served to hasten such decline because of their tendency to marginalise rather than facilitate the inclusion and engagement of older people. Such marginalisation we argue arises, in part, from attitudes that attribute a lesser value to older people who are not in paid work - regardless of their actual contributions. This especially affects older women. Small wonder that many older people are poorly motivated and have internalised negative views of themselves.

But even where there is marginalisation and some dependency it is essential to ensure that older people, as for adults of all ages, are afforded options and choices by which they can adopt and maintain lifestyles that are conducive to their better health and well-being. We must, therefore, endorse the World Health Organisation adage that affirms "while years have been added to life; now we must add life to years."

This means that we call for more flexibility in approaches to age at all its stages, by which we can begin to break away from the notion of progression along some kind of conveyor belt that would have us all pursue a clear path of education, work and then retirement. Greater flexibility means that, instead, we might enjoy different options across the life-course - to enable people to work full or part-time, to take time out (for caring responsibilities, etc.), for training and development or for career changes.

All in all, this points to a scenario where there are more older people who are active (and visible) in the workplace - as employees or employers. And if we can move towards frameworks that facilitate this, then there is the potential to harness the knowledge, talent and ability that many older people possess. There would be, furthermore, the benefit of older people's presence that will helping to demolish some of the misconceptions and stereotypes. Older people, meanwhile, will increasingly look for 'employers of choice' who offer age-friendly working conditions.

To help employers think about their approach to older age Coventry University is already working with ACAS (The Arbitration Conciliation and Advisory Service in the UK) to create an 'age audit' tool for use by employers. This will help them to gauge the extent to which they secure the engagement and respond to the needs and aspirations of their older workers. This audits will, we envisage, add to the evidence regarding the reliability and loyalty of older workers; this, in turn, possibly pointing to the need for employers to give extra consideration to their training and developmental needs.

More broadly with regard to the wellbeing of older people, we see a clear need for health services to place greater emphasis on prevention and to reconfigure service frameworks in ways that encourage us all to take more responsibility for our own health. Housing and communities, meanwhile, need to be increasingly designed with accessibility and usability in mind. And in all contexts there is the potential for assistive technologies to help meet the needs of people at work, at home or on the move.

What this means is that an ageing population is only a problem if workplaces and attitudes do not evolve in ways that facilitate the greater involvement and engagement of older people. This requires a recognition that older people are an important asset. And with regard to the prosperity and vitality of our future communities and workplaces, we ignore this asset at our peril.

Dr Malcolm J. Fisk is Senior Research Fellow at the Health Design and Technology Institute (HDTI) of Coventry University. In that capacity he leads the European Commission funded TeleSCoPE Project that, with thirteen partners in seven countries, is developing a European Code of Practice for Telehealth Services. Malcolm has recently completed a four year term, on behalf of the Welsh Assembly Government, as Chair of the National Partnership Forum for Older People in Wales; and four years as elected Chair of the Telecare Services Association (TSA).