Report of the National Seniors Council on Volunteering Among Seniors and Positive and Active Aging

Overview of Positive and Active Aging

Aging is a multidimensional and complex process. People experience a number of transitions over their life course that impact their social networks, health and participation in the community and the economy. There is no one definition of positive and active aging. However, in its simplest terms it is a strategy to maximize the quality of life and well-being of seniors. This is the definition the National Seniors Council used in writing this report.

A positive and active approach to aging focuses on recognizing seniors as valuable members of society, who contribute a diversity of skills, knowledge and experiences to their families and communities. This approach works to promote an appreciation of the different needs, abilities, and contributions of individuals as they progress through their senior years. Positive and active aging requires an environment that is age-friendly and where seniors have access to programs and services that fulfill their needs and interests.

There are a number of key factors associated with positive and active aging, including:

  • productive, active participation in all aspects of economic, social and community life;
  • self-reliance/self-determination;
  • recognition as an actively contributing member of society;
  • a positive outlook about self and future;
  • good physical and mental health and ability to function;
  • mutually supportive social relationships and contacts;
  • financial security;
  • safe and supportive environment/community to live and work; and
  • availability of adequate services and support.Footnote 5

Benefits of Positive and Active Aging

Seniors themselves and society in general benefit from positive and active aging. For seniors, an active lifestyle can prolong independence, extend participation in the labour force and the community, help manage chronic illnesses and prevent poor health. For example, an active mind may help ward off memory loss and prevent mental decline. Research indicates that older men and women who had the most social interaction within their community had the slowest rate of memory decline. Indeed, those who had the most contact with friends, family and people in their neighbourhood had less than half the rate of memory loss as those with the least social engagement.Footnote 6

Positive and active aging also has a positive impact on Canadian society. Seniors also play an important role in the economy through participation in the workforce and as consumers. Seniors make a significant contribution to the community through volunteer work and support to family and others.

Factors that Influence Positive and Active Aging

A broad range of factors and conditions influence the degree to which a senior can be active and age well. One important component of positive and active aging is the opportunity for individuals to age in their place of choice, which could mean staying at home or moving to supportive housing or an assisted living facility. This requires seniors to have access to housing that is affordable and appropriate to their needs and abilities, accessible transportation, and appropriate health care and social services. Currently, an estimated 80% of home and community care is being provided by family members and friends.Footnote 7  Caregivers play an integral role in assisting seniors to age in their place of choice.

To age positively and actively, seniors also need to live in safe and supportive communities. These communities provide:

  • community services and recreational activities that increase activity and alleviate social isolation and loneliness;
  • public health services to enable seniors to optimize their health and well-being;
  • educational, cultural and spiritual resources that provide opportunities for personal growth, lifelong learning and community participation;
  • a secure and sufficient income that supports an adequate standard of living; and
  • financial literacy resources to support sound financial decision making.

All of the above components are consistent with the Age-Friendly Communities model developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) in collaboration with the Government of Canada.Footnote 8  This model addresses eight key domains of community living that enable seniors with varying needs and capacities to live in security, good health and to participate fully in society. These include: transportation; housing; social participation; respect and social inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information; community support and health services; and outdoor spaces and buildings. Age-friendly communities provide opportunities not just for seniors, but for the whole community.

Barriers to Positive and Active Aging

Ageism is a significant barrier to positive and active aging. In Western culture, aging is often associated with decline, dependence and frailty. Seniors are too often perceived by younger generations as being a social and economic burden, rather than an asset to society. Inaccurate perceptions about aging often lead to discrimination. As a result, seniors' abilities, needs or interests are often not considered in the provision and delivery of services. Ageism may affect the physical and mental health of seniors by limiting fulfilment of their human needs. Indirectly, ageism may lead to seniors conforming to social expectations about how they are supposed to feel and behave, potentially restricting their activities and engagement in their communities. Health issues are another barrier to positive and active aging. For seniors who experience a decline in general health or limitations to their activity levels, it can be more challenging to be active and socially engaged. As people age and their social networks become smaller, isolation and loneliness may increase.

Seniors are not a homogenous population. Individuals may experience barriers based on socio-economic status, gender, culture and ethnicity that may become exacerbated as they age. Immigrant seniors may face greater barriers due to language and limited immigrant specific supports and may face unique financial and health issues. Also, Aboriginal seniors face distinct financial, health, housing and geographical challenges which may hinder positive and active aging.

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