Interview: Jane Scobie of the Global AgeWatch Index


League tables and their data-rich sound bites tend to make good headlines. And so it was with the recent publication of the Global AgeWatch Index report by the United Nations and UK charity HelpAge that has garnered quite a bit of attention in the past few days. This report is the "first ever overview of the well-being of older people around the world".

Jane Scobie has been with HelpAge for 12 years, is currently Director of Advocacy, and was responsible for producing the report. She  talked me through the development of the report and some of the insights that emerged.

Stephen Johnston (SJ): What is HelpAge? 

Jane Scobie (JS): HelpAge is a charity that has been around for 30 years. It started as humanitarian response organization - older people are often missed out when it comes to humanitarian issues, and is set up to look at how older people age in a "resource poor environment" and try and help. We believe in moving mindsets from "aging as a burden" to an "aging as an opportunity". It's a fantastic development that we all have longer life expectancy and people need to shift their thinking to take account of this new reality. HelpAge started with five affiliated organizations from around the world and now has over 100 partners across the network in 65 countries. We do regular campaigns to raise these issues up the political agenda, such as Age Demands Action, and now the AgeWatch Index.

SJ: Why did you create this report? And who did you work  with to develop it? 

JS: Two main reasons. First, we think there is a lack of debate on the issues around aging compared to the need for society to address these issues. For example, Japan is the only country today in which 30% of its population is over the age of 60, yet within two generations (by 2050), there will be 64 countries in that "club". We think one of the reasons there isn't much debate is due to the lack of data (by perry). So this project was able to generate additional data in a range of areas to inform the debate. We also looked at data sets beyond the traditional ones to generate a score of wellness of individuals and society. So the second reason was to generate a more holistic view of aging beyond just the demographics, and look at other measures that impact people's lives.

We collaborated with UNFPA who provided some funding and were part of the expert review group.  We also collaborated with the World Bank on disaggregating data on income poverty in old age and University of Southampton in the UK.

SJ: So what did you measure, and what did you find out? 

JS: In addition to the traditional measures such as demographics, and health and income status we also looked at how prepared older people are to participate in the workforce, and how much access to resources and education they have. One of the things that very clearly emerged is the importance of education. People who are not functionally literate have big problems in society. We also looked at the individual experience of aging. This index is not just about government spending, but also involves the corporate sector, and how individuals treat the family members and their communities.

We used existing comparable data sets to ensure that the countries would accept the results. The data mainly came from WHO, UN and Gallup WorldView. We compared the "speed of aging" in the society with the reality of how society was dealing with the transition. A rapidly aging society doesn't necessarily have to be a problem, for example Brazil is aging fast but already has many good policies in place to ease the transition. That's not true in many other countries.

We worked closely with Datakind - an innovative organization that helps people make sense and understand data sets. They conducted a data dive into the reams of data that we had access to to help make sense of the data.

[caption id="attachment_5127" align="alignleft" width="300"]agewatchindex The four AgeWatch domains: income, health, employment and the environment[/caption]

SJ: What's the relevance for entrepreneurs and the private sector?

JS: One of the things that become clear was that the countries that have done better in the results tend to have more private sector engagement. It's not just government who needs to act, but all players in society. It's clear that societies need a balanced portfolio of approaches to the needs of older people - there's no "one stop shop" answer. One of the interesting business opportunity areas is lifelong learning in China - there's a strong demand for continuing education and China is really embracing this.

A really interesting insight for me was how advanced many of the programs around mobile health and the aging population are, in countries that are not traditionally thought of as technologically advanced. We heard stories of people in developing countries using their mobiles to check whether the doctor had the medicine in stock before making the long trek to the clinic. Haiti and northern Kenya have sophisticated mobile cash transfer systems in place and Sri Lanka has introduced age-friendly mobiles. It’s clear that developing societies are jumping entire technologies and moving rapidly towards mobile lifestyles, often even faster than western countries.

SJ: Any other surprising findings? 

JS: One of the strong findings was the power of older people associations in Asia - these have become so popular now that they've become de facto distribution centers to reach the traditionally hard to find demographic, so can be used to distribute health information or legal advice. Some of these centers also have creches for younger children which encourages intergenerational connections which seemed to be very healthy.

SJ: What problems did you encounter? 

JS: One of the main challenges was the lack of data that is disaggregated by age. Many household surveys don't even capture consumption data for people above 49 for example.

Another tricky issue was around some of the data interpretation issues. We had a group of expert advisors who helped us navigate some of the tricky issues in generating the results. One of these was if the availability of employment opportunities for older workers was a positive or a negative. On the one hand having the ability to work and be productive at a later age is generally seen as a good thing, but what if it is the only way that older people have to survive?

SJ: When can we expect the next one, and what might you do differently?

JS: We will publish the index annually on 1 October. We would like to have included all countries and to have disaggregated data by sex and we will work towards this in future editions.



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