intro: over the past few years, the world's population has continued on its remarkable transition path from a state of high birth and death rates to one characterised by low birth and death rates. At the heart of that transition has been the growth in the number and proportion of elder persons. Such a rapid, large and ubiquitous growth has never before been seen in the history of civilisation.
A review of inter-generational relationships and age-integration in the societies of the developed world reveals remarkable patterns of similarity as well as contrast. The importance of inter-generational relationships, of transfers of material and emotional support, appears to be as great in the family relationships of the developed world as in developing countries.
elderly roles: today, older persons are demographic and social pioneers. Grandparents now range in age from 35 to 105, and grandchildren from new-borns to retirees, giving rise to a wide variety of grandparenting styles. In addition to grandparenting roles, older persons have a wide range of socio-cultural roles or scripts, particularly in pre-industrial cultures. Industrialisation has tended, through the institution of retirement, to marginalise older persons in some ways. In some places, the media has stereotyped older persons as patients or pensioners. Post-industrialisation promises more flexibility for older persons to recover opportunities they customarily enjoyed in pre-industrial settings as well as to explore new roles and meaning for later life. The net effect is a population of older persons worldwide sufficiently varied, flexible and complex to defy easy categorisation and clear cut roles.
global effects: the far-reaching effects of the demographic revolution have been relatively ignored. It has been called ‘the silent revolution’. Yet, its effects are being felt by every individual, family, neighbourhood and nation throughout the world. Individuals are living longer than ever before. Twenty years have been added to the average life-expectancy worldwide in the past 50 years (1950-2000), an effect of improved health, hygiene and nutrition. Populations are ageing too, an effect of declining fertility and increasing longevity. By 2030, several industrialised countries will have one third of their population over age 60. By 2050, the world as a whole will have a third of its population over age 60.
new challenges: governments are faced with the responsibility, in partnership with others, of ensuring the well-being and health of all citizens. This responsibility transcends any consideration of gender, social class, age group, ethnicity or any other individual or group characteristic. Many of the conventional approaches to ageing in different societies have tended to remain intact in spite of extraordinary changes in demography, individual life expectancy, family structure, technology, economy and culture.
new responses: fresh, imaginative and more positive responses to the prospects of further increases in life expectancy and the ageing of populations need to be instituted. To be effective, such approaches need to be based on fundamental shifts in orientation. It is necessary to move from an emphasis on reacting to the negative characteristics of older persons to also seeing their contributions, and from responding to ageing as a problem to seeing it as a potential for wealth creation and a catalyst for flourishing lives. Each society, according to its own priorities and resources, must follow its own course towards the realisation of a society for all ages and determine now the first crucial steps to be taken in that direction.
the initiative: “A society for all ages” - the concept, promoted by the United Nations, is rooted in the Programme of Action adopted at the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995. Viewed as one of the fundamental aims of social integration, it is a society where "…every individual, each with rights and responsibilities, has an active role to play". By integrating ‘age’ into a society for all, the approach becomes multigenerational and holistic, whereby "generations invest in one another and share in the fruits of that investment, guided by the twin principles of reciprocity and equity" (A/50/114, paragraph 38).
The decision to observe 1999 as the International Year of Older Persons and to promote its theme, ‘a society for all ages’, was made in 1992 with the adoption by the General Assembly of the Proclamation on Ageing, "in recognition of humanity's demographic coming of age and the promise it holds for maturing attitudes and capabilities in social, economic, cultural and spiritual undertakings, not least for global peace and development in the next century". Thus began an extensive undertaking by the Programme on Ageing to build a framework that would create a flourishing environment for ‘a society for all ages’, define its parameters and give it substance. To this day it has facilitated global thinking, exploration, and policy orientation on a society for all ages that is expected to continue well beyond.
new perspectives: the concept of ‘multigenerational citizenship’ involves an awareness of being a recipient of heritages from earlier generations as one participates in creating legacies for succeeding ones, in terms of economic, social, and environmental capital. A culture infused with a sense of multi-generational citizenship would harmonise tradition and innovation, and imbue its present undertakings with a broader sense of historical time.
Successful follow-up to the Rio conference on environment and development depends in large part on fostering a sense of multi-generational citizenship. Multi-generational citizenship, while calling for an expanded awareness that considers the needs of present, past and future generations, would also encompass the needs and aspirations of all citizens, many of whom such as refugees, indigenous persons, persons with disabilities, migrants and others have tended to be marginalised.
new dignity, Latin America: “Grandparents by choice” is the name of a programme that has been in operation since 1992 as a response to two phenomena in Uruguay - the demographic evolution which saw the ageing population grow at the fastest rate in Latin America, and a growing number of marginalised children living in poverty.
As in many other countries, older persons in Uruguay have found themselves living more and more on their own, as family structures change and family members migrate for work. Also, as in most other countries, the majority of older persons are women. Many of them are looking for new social roles and relationships. At the same time, approximately 40 per cent of all children in Uruguay live in the poorest 20 per cent of families, and have been found to be at high risk for poor nutrition, poor health and poor educational performance, owing in part to unstable family life. These children are also found to have low levels of self-esteem and tend to live in a cycle of self-perpetuating poverty. The National Institute for Minors (INAME), the governmental agency dealing with many of these children, finds that they have frequent behavioural problems and difficulty in learning, which lead to problems in their integration into society.
Grandparents by Choice brings together these two segments of the population, which are threatened with marginalisation, so that the life skills of the older persons can be put to use in helping the children at risk. The older volunteers are put through an intense training process before they are paired with the children, and the relationships are constantly evaluated.