A new year has begun. As with any new year, it starts with hope and optimism. Of course, it also means that we are all another year older.
These days it is more than just an expression. Canadians are living longer, and the proportion of Canadians over 65 is increasing. Indeed, never in the million year history of humanity has life expectancy increased so rapidly as over the last century. In 1922 the average life expectancy was 60. By 1950 it had increased to 68. Now it is close to 82. Today, a Canadian who turns 65 can expect to live for another 20 years.
Consider the breadth of this leap. In three generations, we are living a third longer. The trend is expected to continue. According to leading population expert James Vaupel, a baby born today has a 40 per cent chance of living for 150 years.
This means that both the size and proportion of the population over 65 is increasing. As of 2011, there were five million Canadians over 65. By 2036 that number will double to ten million comprising one quarter of the population.
For those of you approaching 65 and do not feel as if you should be regarded as a pensioner, there is some comfort in the history of how age 65 came to be defined as the age when one was classified as old. The concept of old age beginning at 65 was developed when Germany introduced the first old age pension scheme in the 19th century. In Germany at that time the average life span was viewed as being around 65. In other words, anyone living longer than the likely life span was considered too old to work and hence entitled to a pension. By that reasoning, old age should now be defined as beginning at age 80.
So what does all this have to do with the special events profession?
Over the Christmas holidays I had the opportunity to visit several seniors’ residents and nursing homes. At least in Ontario, the facilities are impressive. Above all, in my opinion, those who care for the elderly are qualifying for sainthood. Their patience, kindness and dedication in serving the elderly are nothing short of heroic.
But irrespective of the quality of facilities and people assisting the aged, there is an emerging senior citizen challenge confronting us. The rapid growth in life expectancy has been due to extraordinary advances in science and lifestyle changes – more exercise, better diets, less smoking and seat belts for example.
While all this is very laudable, the focus has been on biological longevity. Perhaps we also need to reflect on social longevity.
Notwithstanding great facilities and kindly caregivers, I noticed that the elderly residents seem to spend a lot of time sitting alone staring into space. It seems to be a far more painful, and perhaps unbearable, affliction than any physical ailment.
There are a lot of causes for this sad condition. The process of continually losing spouses, relatives and dear friends is inevitably an alienating experience. Diminished faculties such as hearing and seeing add to the isolation. Over time there is a decline in mental acuity.
All this forces the question: we are surviving longer, but are we living longer?
It seems to me that this is where the special events profession can step in. At its core, what is the special events profession but increasing and enhancing relationships between people?
How the events industry can help
We have a sizable emerging population (in the millions!) who are in desperate need of holding on to and renewing their human relationships. How can the expertise of the special events profession contribute to addressing some of these challenges?
There are many in the special events business contributing freely of their time helping the elderly. Yet I wonder if there is also a broader strategic role that the industry can play.
- How can social events be structured to facilitate greater contact given the limitations of hearing or mobility?
- Can social media be fine tuned to enable the elderly to seek out and be part of virtual networks of friends? Many people over the age of 70 are already familiar with computers, and I am convinced that those who are not could be taught to use them.
- Special events practitioners pay a lot of attention to venue layout. Could they offer advice on how seniors’ residents could be better designed to facilitate person-to-person contact? I notice that chairs are often lined up in a row along a wall, which does not seem to be very conducive to conversation.
- In many seniors residents the ratio of female to male residents seems to be about 10 to 1. This must create an added sense of isolation for older men. What could be done to support further contact between the gentlemen residing in the facility?
I am sure that this is just scratching the surface. There are numerous other issues that the special events profession could identify and improve.
Of course this is not entirely altruistic on the part of people working in the industry. Time is an unrelenting pedestrian for everyone that just keeps marching on. Some day all of us – we hope – will join the ranks of the aged. For that which we give today will be returned tomorrow in full measure when it is our time.