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Positive ageing week: TILDA making Ireland the best place in the world to grow old

TILDA is a large-scale, nationally representative, longitudinal study on ageing in Ireland, the overarching aim of which is to make Ireland the best place in the world to grow old. TILDA collects information on all aspects of health, economic and social circumstances from people aged 50 and over in a series of data collection waves once every two years. This research project is unique amongst longitudinal studies in the breadth of physical, mental health and cognitive measures collected. This data, together with the extensive social and economic data, makes TILDA one of the most comprehensive research studies of its kind both in Europe and internationally.

To coincide with Positive Ageing Week, we spoke to Dr Mark Ward, Research Fellow in Medical Gerontology at St James Hospital and The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), about his research, the broad impact of TILDA, and the positive contributions of older people to Irish life.

TILDA is researching many aspects of life for older people in Ireland, could you summarise its reach?

TILDA is truly unique in its scope and breadth and is a world leader in longitudinal studies in ageing. When TILDA started in 2009, we recruited over 8,500 people aged 50 years and older which equates to 1-in-150 of all adults in Ireland in this age group.

A key strength of the study is that it brings together researchers from a range of disciplines including sociology, gerontology, psychology, economics, nutrition, as well as medical clinicians. By working together on questions important for an ageing population, we are able to take a holistic view of ageing that furthers our understanding of the interplay of different aspects of peoples lives as they age. In terms of outputs, TILDA has published over 400 papers and 50 reports, and its research has been drawn on in over 200 national and international policy and advocacy docs. This work has been featured hundreds of times in both national and international media sources and is the go-to source of information on ageing for government and policymakers in Ireland. We also actively support a number of organisations who work with older adults in the community including the charity ALONE and an initiative with the GAA to bring the ‘secrets of successful ageing’ to people throughout the island.

The contribution that TILDA participants have made, and their unwavering support of the project is phenomenal. Obviously, without them the project wouldn’t exist and as a team we are sincerely grateful for their continued participation.”

You have co-authored some pivotal reports on the contribution of older people to life in Ireland, could you describe the key findings?

Life expectancy has been steadily rising for a number of decades which means people are living longer now than they have at any time in history. Despite this being a phenomenally good news story, ageing is typically portrayed in a negative light. Older adults are often referred to in very negative terms, including being a burden on society and of making little contribution once they have retired from employment.

Contrary to this, TILDA has consistently highlighted the huge contribution older adults make to their families, communities, and wider society. For example, one-in-five older adults volunteer their time in various groups every week which brings enormous benefit to these groups and the individuals who benefit from them.

Older adults are also one of the largest providers of care in the country, caring for their own family members as well as others. More than 40% provide regular care to their grandchildren which represents a massive economic input by supporting the caring needs of parents in employment and training. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of these roles as many older adults continued, and indeed increased, the time spent on caring for others in the absence of many services that were heavily curtailed during the pandemic, including childcare facilities.”

The Covid-19 pandemic brought many challenges to Irish people, not least our older people. Lockdown loneliness was a significant factor for many. Could you expand on the effect of Covid-19?

An increasing number of older adults live alone and loneliness had become a key focus of public health - even before the pandemic struck. Loneliness is associated with a number of physical and mental health conditions, and ultimately premature mortality. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this problem and we have observed a threefold increase in loneliness since the pandemic began.

Our research is currently being used to identify the scope of the problem and importantly to devise ways in which loneliness can be alleviated among older adults. As part of this, we work closely with community organisations and I represent TILDA on the national Loneliness Taskforce.”

Could you describe your own role within TILDA?

As a Research Fellow in TILDA, my work focuses on understanding how the social world impacts their physical and psychological wellbeing. Of course, over the last 18 months my work has concentrated on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives of older adults as in many ways the pandemic can be viewed as the largest social intervention ever experienced by this population.”

What is your academic, clinical or research background?

I trained as a sociologist in Trinity College Dublin and have applied this training to the study of social epidemiology and gerontology. Sociology makes an important contribution to medical research by highlighting the social aetiology of disease and, indeed, social responses to illness.”

What are your goals for the future?

I hope that my work will continue to shine a light on the contributions of older adults to society and to provide an evidence base to support successful ageing. As part of that I am in the planning phase of work to identify the biological mechanisms that might explain the association between loneliness and ill-health.”

When you are not engaged in research, what do you do to relax?

I have two wonderful daughters aged five and eleven so I spend as much time as possible with them. I am also heavily involved in the GAA and have an amazing time coaching football and camogie with the under 11s Na Fianna team. There is nothing more heart warming than seeing the joy children get from participating in sport and being part of the Club and GAA community. Although, whether that counts as relaxing or not is another matter!

For more information on Positive Ageing Week, see here: www.positiveageingweek.com

For more information on the work of TILDA, see here: https://tilda.tcd.ie