Citizenship and Aging: Reflections from the NICE Knowledge Exchange Event

by Heather McNeil
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The conference theme for the 11th Annual National Institute for the Care of the Elderly (NICE) Knowledge Exchange event, “Coming of AGE”, recognized the new demographic reality in Canada, where for the first time older Canadians outnumber younger ones. The meeting was designed as an opportunity to learn and respond to best practices and policy needs for this “new age of older adults” ( Yet, in modern societies, older adults are often perceived as having limited roles, commentary to support this separation from society typically includes their departure from roles both at home and in the work force, and costs to society through health and social service spending. As a doctoral student in the Aging, Health, and Well-being program at the University of Waterloo I work to change this perspective on aging, and look to theories of aging to both examine my work and communicate it to the broader community through knowledge exchange.

The keynote address, “Citizens until the End of Their Lives” given by Dr. Malcolm Payne presented a theory of aging that emerged from a career in social work, connecting ideas of citizenship and aging. Dr. Payne’s theorization began with the idea that older people are citizens. Citizenship, Dr. Payne described, endows both rights of participation and responsibilities based on the inherent worth of individuals in society regardless of age. Dr. Payne asked the audience to consider the role of the older adult in the community. While this is something I am sure many in the room had spent time considering, I am not sure many had used the lens of “citizenship” to do so before.

Dr. Payne shared his commentary on the ease in modern society with which older people’s rights and citizenship are taken away and the damaging results this has on older adults, their relationships, and society more broadly. He contextualized this with examples of the experience of refugees, contrasting their lack of rights with the experiences many older adults have of their rights being taken away. With this, he proposed that we find ways of valuing older adults and think about how we engage with them in society. Dr. Payne shared some of his experience in social work practice with older adults that use creativity as a mechanism for social inclusion. His presentation of case examples revealed that creative approaches, such as storytelling or reminiscence, can lead to a sense of empowerment in older adults.

One challenge I can see with this lens, is a critique similar to that of the Successful Aging literature in that responsibilities of citizenship and the expectations of being engaged can be complex. In my doctoral work, I examine the engagement of older adults and their caregivers in innovation ecosystems that support health and aging. Preliminary findings have revealed the importance of choice and the multiple roles that older adults want to play in society (in the case of my study- in innovation ecosystems).

Dr. Payne’s theorization of citizenship and aging will be useful going forward to frame my understanding of engagement; trainees and others interested in the role of older adults in society would be interested to read his work.

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