Healthcare must address 'specific long-term needs' of the elderly

Sharing best practice, harnessing political will and engaging all stakeholders is crucial to developing healthy and active ageing, writes Maria Iglesia Gomez.

By Maria Iglesia Gomez

10 Jun 2014

In Europe, we know the number of Europeans over 65 years of age will double in the next 50 years – 150 million is foreseen in 2060 compared to 85 million in 2008, and the number of citizens over the age of 80 will almost triple. Life expectancy is also on the rise, but, as it stands, living longer unfortunately does not necessarily mean living healthier or with a good quality of life in Europe. At present, in the EU we know a person will live on average one fifth of their life in poor health, caused mainly by the development of one or more chronic diseases (such as diabetes, dementia).

"Age-related government spending is projected to increase in the EU and with that health and care systems need to be reformed to address the specific long-term needs of the older population​"

Age-related government spending is projected to increase in the EU and with that health and care systems need to be reformed to address the specific long-term needs of the older population, and to adapt to the financial pressure caused by demographic trends. But ageing can also be a source of growth; an increase in jobs in the area of health and care related to the ageing population is expected between now and 2020. The public sector can innovate as well, and EU industry boosted to develop new services and products to answer a growing demand. This is known as the 'silver economy' opportunity for Europe.

The European innovation partnership on active and healthy ageing was launched in 2011 as a pilot to draw lessons on how Europe can successfully build innovation ecosystems to meet the demands of an ageing population. It involves bringing different initiatives together and involving all relevant stakeholders at EU, national and regional levels, across the whole research and innovation supply and demand chain, to support local and regional implementation of active and healthy ageing solutions.

One of the aims when setting up the partnership was to develop a shared vision on active and healthy ageing in the EU. By 2020, the partnership aims to increase the average number of healthy life years for an EU citizen by two, and by doing so secure a 'triple win' for Europe. First to improve the health status and quality of life of citizens, second, to support the long-term sustainability and efficiency of health and social care systems, and third, to enhance the competitiveness of industry and of markets for new innovative products and services.

The role of the European commission has been to stimulate and support the emergence of solutions that are currently being developed on the ground, at a local level. The partnership has enabled the participants to exchange information and practices on relevant issues like improving adherence to medical plans by older people, introducing better coordinated services within the health system and between health and care services or promoting prevention of frailty through actions focused on adequate nutrition or physical exercise.

Importance is also given to the operational framework to ensure interoperability between the ICT systems and platforms that can be adopted to prevent falls, connect patients with their health practitioners or support their ties with their relatives. Not only health issues are at the core of the process: the capacity to design age-friendly cities and environments which take into account the specific needs of older people, such as housing or ICT apps, are all important areas that we promote to improve older peoples' quality of life in the EU.

" The partnership can highlight that in Europe we are able to thrive on our differences"

Many solutions for ageing well in our society are already implemented. The innovative approach is to highlight the most-advanced ones, to take inspiration from those and to create the conditions for their transfer to other contexts. We can avoid replicating the same uncertain experiments, save time and resources, thanks to a 'virtuous circle'. The partnership can highlight that in Europe we are able to thrive on our differences. Many regions and local communities have progressively expressed their interest in joining the experience. Setting up a forum for this collective learning, based on a 'bottom-up' approach, shows how the commission can play a role in achieving common goals.

The priority the commission gives to healthy ageing is illustrated in the links with the new round of funding programmes: Horizon 2020, the public health programme, active and assisted living research and development programme, and structural funds. These, among others, include funding streams dedicated to active and healthy ageing.

The partnership has demonstrated that there are good, evidence based solutions which can bring about real improvements for older people. We need to learn from each other, to secure political will and engage more actors in our efforts towards active and healthy ageing in the EU.