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The undead: ‘Ideas that need to die’ at Visionary Conversations
Posted Thursday, November 24, 2011 11:33 AM
by Toby Cygman
For The Bulletin

Zombies may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of the aging population, but panelist Verena Menec began her talk with the undead at the third installment of Visionary Conservations on the evening of November 9.

Menec, a Canada Research Chair in Healthy Aging and director of the Centre on Aging, used zombies as an analogy for misconceptions about an aging population – ideas that should be dead but keep coming back to life.

Misconceptions and the negativity surrounding this topic was a theme of the night as four panelists and President and Vice-Chancellor David Barnard discussed the topic “Our Aging Society: Are We Ready?” before a full house at the Schultz Theatre in St. John’s College.

Some see the aging population as an impending disaster. Menec pointed out, however, that the baby boomer generation spans 20 years, and that because not everyone is aging at the same rate, there will be time to adjust to the demographic shift.

Menec believes that a change is needed in how we think about older adults — not as a hindrance, but as an asset. Seniors volunteer, take care of family members and are consumers. This is an “opportunity rather than a burden,” she said.

The second panelist, Phil St. John, added that our healthier older populace is a by-product of a healthier society. Lower levels of poverty, clean drinking water and decreased levels of smoking and drinking have dramatically improved life expectancies.
“We’re talking about growing old because we’re not dying young,” St. John said, “and that is a success story.”

St. John, head of geriatric medicine in the Faculty of Medicine and a practicing geriatrician in the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA), addressed the importance of adapation by our health care system to the aging population. Because people are living longer than ever before, we need to start to consider diseases and disorders in new ways and focus on health promotion rather than health care.

Approaching the issue from another angle, Malcolm Smith, head of marketing at the I.H. Asper School of Business, discussed the aging population from an economic perspective.

This demographic controls 80 per cent of the wealth and has 55 per cent of the discretionary spending power in Canada, noted Smith, yet we still stereotype the elderly consumer as slow, stingy and wary of technology. The most effective way of marketing to an older population, Smith said, is by promoting individual autonomy.

The final panelist of the evening was Michelle Porter, acting director of the Health, Leisure and Human Performance Research Institute where she heads the mobility aging laboratory. Porter spoke about the case of the older driver, where “demography, health and agism intersect and collide.”

There is a huge bias surrounding older drivers, she argued. Many people believe that drivers should be re-tested at a certain age regardless of their health and fitness levels. In Japan, older drivers even require a special decal on their car to identify them (the decal, an image representing a falling leaf, is under reconsideration). All this suggests that we think of older drivers as dangerous, though Porter pointed out that seniors adjust to their own limitations and that crash and fatality rates for older drivers are actually decreasing. Porter also spoke to the need for automotive designers and city planners to adapt to the aging population
A lively question-and-answer period followed with many audience members raising concerns about living accommodations for the elderly, hospitals and private health care. In response to a question, David Barnard said that it was “clear that the aging population presents an opportunity for the university’s engagement in the community.”

The evening was brought to a close with a summary by Digvir Jayas, VP (research and international). He suggested that while we may be ill-prepared for this shift in demographics, there is still time to adapt our health systems, businesses, cities and communities to the aging population.

>>To watch Visionary Conversation videos, go to the link below.
For more information, contact:
Mariianne Mays Wiebe
Editor, The Bulletin
Marketing Communications Office
Phone: (204) 474-8111
Fax: (204) 474-7631