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Experts tackle challenges of ageing society

Taking a break: elderly women are often the main care providers

The rapidly ageing population and the social challenges it poses are being discussed at a three-day international congress in Switzerland.

Experts are examining a range of issues thrown up by longer life expectancy including health care, growing social inequality among the elderly and the threat posed by today's "cult of youth".

The congress, Healthy Ageing: Current Social Challenges, which is being held at Neuchâtel University, is being hosted by the Swiss Health Observatory (SHO).

One of the major themes is how to meet the increasing demands of caring for the elderly.

Earlier this week the SHO revealed that the number of elderly people in Switzerland in need of care was due to rise by a fifth over the next 15 years.

Of the 126,000 people currently in this category, 40 per cent are in nursing and retirement homes while the rest are looked after in their own homes by partners, relatives and care workers.

The SHO says partners and families, who often lack support, will continue to take the lead in caring for the elderly over the next 25 years.

"People now tend to go into nursing homes only when they are really badly off. They stay longer at home and most of the care for those with minor illnesses and disabilities is carried out by relatives," Professor Peter Meyer, director of the SHO, told swissinfo.

"This means their quality of life is much higher but the problem is – and this is one of the big things we are discussing – that the carers, most of them wives and daughters, have a tendency to get overburdened. It is very important that we support them."

According to one European study cited by Meyer, relatives are the main care providers for almost two-thirds of those over 80.

Social inequality

Another concern for sociologists is social inequality among the elderly. They say that the gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of access to health care and spending power has widened over the past 20-30 years as people live longer.

Experts are also worried by what they describe as a rising "anti-ageing movement", which is trying to "rejuvenate" older people in line with the current social norm that puts a premium on youth.

Meyer said billboard adverts portraying sprightly pensioners bounding up mountain peaks paint a distorted picture of life for most elderly people.

"It would be naive to say that all elderly people are healthy and happy, but the cult of youth is making it a stigma to be old," he added.

Meyer also pointed out that while there was more and more debate about the ageing population, the issue was being approached from too narrow a point of view.

"All the discussion is about retirement and pensions. It is wrong to discuss this merely on an economic level. It is making the elderly out to be a burden on society."

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

Key facts

According to the Federal Statistics Office, the number of people aged over 79 in Switzerland is expected to more than double between 2000 and 2040.
Their numbers are predicted to rise from 290,000 to between 550,000 and 680,000.

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In brief

Around 60 papers on the challenges posed by an ageing population are being presented during the three-day meeting.

Topics to be covered include suicide among the elderly, the culture of death, the role of therapeutic clowns, and homosexual men in old age.

The congress is organised on a biennial basis by Switzerland, Germany, Austria and France. Sociologists from other countries, including Britain, Canada and Belgium, are also taking part.

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