Ageing population more at risk from environmental threats

More of us are getting older, for longer, and policies need to reflect that. John Stillwell/PA

The global population is ageing. This is happening at a time when the rate and scale of human-induced environmental change is exceeding critical ecological limits, raising concerns over the consequences for society.

Our understanding of the interaction between an ageing demographic and a changing environment is in its infancy. We’ve heard much about the impact an ageing population will have on government spending on health, social services and pensions and the need for people to work longer before retiring. Yet one area that is not sufficiently addressed by the sustainable development agenda is the vulnerability of older people to environmental change.

Although comprehensive data is not always available regarding the age breakdown of deaths from flooding, heatwaves, cold snaps, air pollution and storm events, there is increasing evidence to suggest most fatalities occur in vulnerable older people. This is particularly important in developing countries which lack the appropriate policies and frameworks to address the needs of an ageing population. HelpAge International has highlighted the problem, especially in how to meet the needs of older people during natural disasters and emergencies.

Environmental threats include long-term exposure to toxic pollutants in air, water or food as well as sudden natural or human-induced shocks, such as heatwaves, flooding and storms. The 2003 heat wave across Europe resulted in an estimated 14,800 deaths in France, of which 70% were people aged over 75. When floods, snowfall and bush fires disrupt services, the knock-on effects on everyday life are felt mainly by older people.

Older people are a diverse group and some are physically, financially and emotionally less able to cope than others. This is due to a number of factors such as ill health, income, geographic location, family support and friend networks, quality of public health infrastructure and access to relevant local information.

As people grow older their biological strength declines and they are susceptible to age-related chronic diseases, reduced mobility and strength, and loss of sight and hearing. These difficulties are further compounded by loss of income, and loss of a spouse, friends or family. All these factors will determine to what extent an individual’s way of life is disrupted by environmental threats that force them to cope to avoid a decline in their wellbeing.

Research by the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York together with Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology Research Centre in Vancouver, Canada, highlights the need to raise awareness of the effects of a changing global environment on older people.

Researchers undertook an international pilot survey of older people’s attitudes in Australia, Canada, Sweden, USA and UK. The survey, while not completely representative of over 55s in these countries, gives an indication of the attitudes of a sample of older people.

The respondents were concerned about the environment, the threat of climate change, and energy and water security. They were pessimistic about planet that their grandchildren and future generations will inherit, and believe environmental problems will have grown significantly by 2050. But respondents expressed limited concern on how climate change will impact their own lives, surprising given their vulnerabilities.

The report calls for policies to encourage older people to reduce their personal contribution to environmental change by promoting greener behaviour, especially with regard to home energy use and transport. This could be helped by providing appropriate infrastructure, such as more energy efficient homes, and incentives to allow them to lead greener lifestyles. A 2010 SEI report presented the case for better engagement of older people on climate change.

So more needs to be done to ensure people reach later life with sufficient reserves to cope with present and future environmental threats. This will include ensuring they have access to local support networks, health care, information, coping skills and savings.

In addition, older people should be encouraged to take part in environmental volunteering. Their knowledge of the local environment, its unique elements or weak points, would mean they could them to play a key role developing local environmental protection strategies.

Our social and economic policies need to be shaped by a shared understanding of the ageing of our society and environmental change. We can adapt to each of these separately, but that risks seeking solutions in one area that might have adverse effects on the other. Policies therefore need to be “age proofed” so that they can support older people through their life, minimise the negative impact of environmental change, and harness the contribution older people can make to addressing a changing world.