How Can We Protect An Ageing Population From The Effects of Environmental Change?

sri-lanka-flood-older-man-carried_246x211By 2050 there will be an unprecedented increase in the number of people aged 55-plus representing nearly a quarter of the global population.

The rise in the numbers of older people is happening more rapidly in developing countries where 60 per cent of the world’s older people currently live, particularly in Asia and Africa.

An ageing population has wide-ranging implications for environment, economy and society. Changes in age structure together with an expanding population, rapid urbanisation and levels of consumption are all placing pressure on the global environment.

This presents challenges in eradicating poverty, ensuring environmental justice and achieving an environmentally sustainable development, especially in the least developed countries of the world.

Acceleration of Global Ageing

The interaction between an ageing population and the environment poses significant challenges and opportunities for public policy.

However, policy makers at the international level have given little attention to the effects global environmental change will have on this demographic group.

Older people are a diverse group. Some are educated, fit, active and wealthy, have access to most of the goods and services they need and desire and play a key role in caring for themselves and other family members including grandchildren. In contrast, others are poor, frail and require care and financial support.

There are major regional differences, with poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia resulting in many older people in these areas lacking access to clean water, sanitation, nutrition and basic health care, making them highly vulnerable to environmental threats.

A study by the Stockholm Environment Institute reviews the key issues relevant to global ageing and environmental change. It examines older people not only in terms of their vulnerability to environmental threats but as potential contributors to environmental sustainability. The study recommend three areas for action if we are protect older people from future environmental change.


Elderly woman with social care assistant

Promoting greener attitudes and behaviours and influencing individual lifestyle choices across the life course are measures that can and should be used to reduce the future and current environmental footprint of older people.

This is particularly important at a time when many rapidly developing countries are seeing an increase in a high-consuming middle-class group who will eventually grow older.

There is an equally important need to engage older people using appropriate approaches such as peer-to-peer approaches which could provide more credibility.

Targeted engagement of older people not only fosters greener behaviours but also responds to their perceived lack of opportunities for social involvement and inter¬action.

Recent studies undertaken on direct interaction with the older age sector on climate change have demonstrated that, used in the appropriate way, it is a headline topic that stimulates lively discussion and debate on many issues related to environment and sustainability

Appropriate infrastructure and incentives that encourages greener behaviours in later life will also be needed. Since there will be a high number of urban seniors, achieving age-friendly cities will be important. In particular, older people require supportive and enabling living environments to compensate for physical and social changes associated with ageing.

These include walkable outdoor space and accessible public buildings, accessible and affordable public transport, appropriately designed, affordable and energy efficient housing with access to local services, opportunities for social participation and social inclusion, civic participation and employment.



We need policies that reduce the environmental vulnerability of older people and that focus on each part of the dynamic process that creates vulnerability.

These include policies that ensure people reach later life with sufficient reserves (e.g. coping skills, strong family and social ties and savings and assets), reducing the challenges they face in later life, and providing adequate health and social protection.

These factors will be different for older people in the developed and developing world. In developing countries, lack of basic infrastructure such as clean water and sanitation and health and social care combined with poverty and malnutrition make them vulnerable to environmental threats.

HelpAge International has discussed the need for climate and development strategies to be responsive to the realities of the ageing population and climate change. They suggest without age appropriate action, the effectiveness and success of climate adaption and national development and resilience strategies could be significantly compromised.

HelpAge International outlines ten strategies to coping with an ageing population in a changing climate .

In addition, Help the Aged identified ten basic requirements to make developed world communities better for older people.

These requirements included: adapting new and existing accommodation to suit people of all ages; transport options that meet the needs of all older people; keeping pavements in good repair; provision of public toilets; public seating; good street lighting and clean streets with a police presence; access to shops and services; places to socialise; information and advice; and ensuring older people’s voices are heard on issues from social care to volunteering opportunities.

If we are going to better protect individual countries need to be adopted. Policies that provide social protection, encouraging healthy life¬styles, acquisition of coping skills, strong family and social ties, active interests and, of course, savings and assets, will be important. All will assist in ensuring that people’s reserves are, and remain, strong in later life.


volunteerSeniors’ knowledge of the local environment, its vulnerabilities and how the community responds allows them to play a key role in reducing the environmental impact of disasters. In particular, their knowledge of socio-ecological system and coping mechanisms can in some contexts be critical when developing local disaster risk reduction and adaptation plans .

Growing old in the twenty-first century will bring with it the unique challenge of a changing global environment with variable climate and weather patterns which will impact on all aspects of life. Policies therefore need to be ‘age proofed’ so that they can support older people through their life course.

If we are to prevent and minimise the negative impact of environmental change on older people, there is an urgent need to better understand the interaction between global ageing and the environment. We need to harness the contribution older people can make to addressing environmental threats, while reducing their vulnerability.


What Do Older People Think About The Environment?

We are all getting older. There are now approximately 760 million people globally aged 60-plus compared to just 200 million back in 1950. By 2050 people aged 60-plus are predicted to reach 2 billion people.

We are all getting older. There are now approximately 760 million people globally aged 60-plus compared to just 200 million back in 1950. By 2050 people aged 60-plus are predicted to reach 2 billion people.

Increased lifespan demonstrates the success of modern medicine particularly in developing countries. However, an ageing population will have major implications for health care, pensions and working practices.

An older society will require a cultural change in how we perceive and treat older people and policy makers will need to prepare for the challenges of an ageing population. Not just in terms of need but also the contribution older people can make to society in later life.

Evidence shows that some older people in certain regions of the world can be disproportionately affected by environmental problems such as air pollution, climate change-related heat waves and other natural disasters.

In addition, recent research, surveys and consultations have exposed the missed opportunities associated with the lack of closer engagement of the over 55s in general discussion on environmental issues.

It is therefore important that seniors around the world make their voices heard so that policy makers can take action to better prepare for the needs of an ageing population.

In June 2012 the environment will once again be in the international spotlight as world leaders descend on Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) for the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development or “Earth Summit”.

In an attempt to address the “missing voice” of older people and to encourage wider involvement, an consortium led by the Stockholm Environment Institute is seeking the views of older people around the world on the environmental issues of primary concern and their ideas for tackling them.

This survey is being conducted by an international consortium of older people organisations and universities. The consortium is led by SEI at the University of York (UK) and the Simon Fraser University Gerontology Research Centre (Canada) and includes Help Age International, Age UK, Community Service Volunteers’ Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme (RSVP) and the Council On The Ageing (COTA) – Victoria (Australia).

If your are over 55 then make sure your voice is heard by completing the On-line survey at before the 30 April 2012.

© Gary Haq 2012

Growing Old in a Changing Climate

Older People in a Flood THE ageing of our society and the changing of our climate are two key inevitabilities of this century. However, the effects of climate change will not be evenly distributed, as certain groups in society will be affected more than others. The recent heavy snow in the UK and the heatwave in Australia show that older people are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events.

Older people are not only among the prime contributors to climate change, but also potentially some of the first casualties. They may be physically, financially and emotionally less able to cope the effects of a changing climate than the rest of the population.

The August 2003 European heatwave clearly demonstrated the consequences of a rapid rise in temperature which reached 40°C and resulted in the death of 14,802 elderly people in France, and 2,139 in England and Wales.Heatwave

The June 2007 floods showed the impact severe weather events can have on local communities and services. Older people, especially those without the resources to cope, will be affected more by such events. The insecurity and heightened exposure to threats posed by a changing climate are further compounded for older people by their reduced capacity for coping independently.

The effects of climate change, such as high temperatures, storm damage and poor access to public services due to extreme weather events, pose a threat to our quality of life in old age. How well we will deal with the effects of a changing climate will be determined by our state of health, income, where we live, family support network and access to, and quality of, key essential services. As we grow older, we are faced increasingly with declining health and physical strength, disability, loss of income and bereavement.

We can adapt to climate change and old age separately, but that risks seeking solutions in one area that might adversely affect another. For example, we might drive up the cost of fuel in order to restrain usage but impose, in consequence, on our older population, an inability to adequately keep warm and pricing them out of the car-using public when that might be their only option to get out and about.

The issues around climate change, and the issues about an ageing society, can be described in isolation, but we need to bring them together if we are to protect older people. Energy use is of particular concern as an increasing number of older people are facing fuel poverty.

The carbon footprint of those aged 50 to 64 years, and 65 to 74 years, are the two highest compared to other age groups. Clearly, our carbon reduction strategies need to give due attention to the particular characteristics of these groups. But older people must be part of the solution too: can we make it easier for them to conserve energy, and can we harness their interest and enthusiasm to “make the world a fit place for our grandchildren”, and build a positive force for the future?

Older people are willing to contribute to tackling climate change. However, there is no coherent policy response which addresses the interface between climate change and older people. Policies need to be sharpened, focused and co-ordinated to deal with the range of impacts a changing climate will have on the lives of an ageing population.

Government agencies and older people’s organisations need to make a concerted effort to improve the ability of older people to cope with the effects of climate change. It calls on government to risk assess all future policies so that they do not undermine government targets to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions and put older people at risk.

If we are to meet the challenge of growing old in a changing climate, then older people need to have an active role. We need to make it easier for them to conserve energy, use public transport and maintain crucial social networks that will help them better cope with the effects of climate change.

© Gary Haq 2009