Once an exclusive club, the number of people living to celebrate their hundredth birthday has grown exponentially across both the developing world to the point where centenarians are now the fastest growing demographic globally. In Ireland, the centenarian population has exploded, rising 20 percent in just four years. This number is expected to increase ten-fold by 2050.
While this remarkable phenomenon can be attributed, in part, to advancements in healthcare, technology, living conditions and improved economies, Alison Fagan, under the stewardship of Dr. Mary McDonnell Naughton and Lorraine Gaffney, both lecturers in the Faculty of Science and Health, set about finding and interviewing a sampling of Ireland’s centenarians. She soon discovered a range of psycho-social factors that have an incredibly potent impact on the ageing process.
Loneliness - a silent killer
The first commonality to emerge from her research was the importance of having close ties to friends, family and the wider community.
“I’m not talking about how we would rank social connectedness today. I could say I’m extremely socially connected because I have 700 friends on Facebook and 300 people like my Instagram page, but that’s a foreign world to them. They’re talking about real-time connections, face-to-face interactions with the people around them. In the modern world, where people appear more ‘connected’ than ever, we are actually totally disconnected. It’s a cruel irony and something I’ve become more aware of since I began this research.
Loneliness and social disconnect is an incredibly pervasive problem that affects all strata of society. Irish women aged between 65 and 85 are considered particularly at risk of withdrawing into themselves following retirement or the loss of a spouse. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, 16-24 year-olds are experiencing record levels of depression and anxiety with more than ten percent of them reporting feeling often or always lonely,” Alison remarked.
Maintaining identity - hobbies, goals and roles
Staying active in retirement was vital to the centenarians’ longevity. Often, they carried hobbies, like dancing, right through from childhood to adulthood. She recalled her first encounter with one of the oldest participants in the study, a sprightly 106 year-old man with a penchant for gardening.
“I pulled up to the house and saw a man flying around his garden on a ride-on mower. I, assuming he was the son, introduced myself and asked to speak to his father. He laughed, hopped off the lawn mower to shake my hand,” Alison continued.
She was also struck by how engaged the centenarians were with what was happening in the world around them. Every one of them had an opinion on the big stories dominating the news cycle at the time, most notably #MeToo and #Repealthe8th, and was determined to take an active role in the public discourse.
Resilience and the power of positivity
Many of the study participants also showed a propensity for resilience, a quality that saw them through some extremely challenging times. Some were orphaned, others had experienced difficulties in their married lives and were left rearing children by themselves, while others never married at all. The commonality was not in the event itself but in how they dealt with it.
She gave several anecdotal examples, one of which detailed how, when one of the women’s husbands got sick, she took on the role of a full-time carer so that she could nurse him back to health.
Looking to the future
With more and more people making it to 100 and beyond, Irish centenarians are beginning to impact society on a grand level. Through stakeholder-informed research like Alisons, policy makers will have the tools to plan for the future and put supports in place to meet increased demand on housing, service, medical care and considerations to pension and working age.
“These are conversations that we need to be having now. As it stands, the healthcare system is already flummoxed. This problem isn’t just going to go away, it’s only going to be compounded as the centenarian population grows,” Alison reflected.
Believing prevention to be better than a cure, Alison maintains that more money needs to be allocated to health promotion and educating people on how to make better choices and stay healthy, something that is atypical across the developed world.
Other things that can be done to promote successful aging include encouraging people to stay in their homes longer as ageing within the community, has been proven to be much more beneficial and cost effective. She also recommends that neighbours check in on people most at risk of social isolation, namely widowers and people living in rural areas.
“We just need to listen to our older people and afford them the value and respect they deserve,” Alison concluded.