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The Age We Live In

Resource type: News

The Irish Times |

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Trinity College Dublin is an Atlantic grantee.

CLAIRE O’CONNELL reports on the rationale behind a new study on ageing in the Republic which has just been launched

WHAT IS it really like to grow old in Ireland? A major new study, which launched its national pilot last week, plans to find out.

And in doing so it will allow us to shape affordable and useful health and social care policies for our ageing population, according to Prof Rose Anne Kenny, principal investigator with The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing ( TILDA).

“In many instances we are making health and social care policy decisions without having adequate data on which to base those practices,” says Kenny, professor of gerontology at TCD. “The implication of that is there is an unmet need and also possibly a waste of resources in some areas, so we can refocus resources so there is more value for money.”

The €29 million study, to be funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, Irish Life and the Department of Health and Children, will track 8,000 older people periodically over a decade, assessing health and social and economic factors. And the answers will have a major impact on how we plan for health and social care, says Kenny.

“We will be able to see what impact healthcare systems have on health outcomes, on disability levels and on people’s perceptions of how sick they are,” she says. “And we will have objective measures of how sick people really are, so we will be able to inform issues around developing affordable healthcare policies in Ireland.”

Social care will also get some much-needed concrete data: “We will see who is accessing social healthcare systems but also who is not, and who is dependent on informal care and carers and family networks for care, and where are we missing out, how can we best utilise formal and informal care and support informal care,” explains Kenny.

The initiative brings together researchers across several third-level institutions in Ireland, and the anonymised data will provide a national resource for academic study, according to Kenny. “Our objective is to make Ireland a hotbed for age-related research and development internationally.”

But how will it work in practice? The first step will involve fieldworkers literally knocking on doors, cold-calling up to 40,000 randomly chosen addresses and asking any residents aged over 50 if they want to take part.

If the answer to that first question is yes, participants will take part in a social survey. Constructing the survey questions has taken “an insanely long time”, says TILDA co-investigator Dr Virpi Timonen, who lectures in social policy and ageing at TCD.

Together with Dr Yumiko Kamiya she is working on aspects of social connectedness and independence, including what participants do with leisure time, the quality and frequency of their relationships with family and friends, whether they can carry out daily activities on their own, and if not then who cares for them.

“It will enable us, for the first time ever, to build up a picture of what is going on with the ageing population,” says Timonen, who notes that because individuals are tracked over time, the results will be more meaningful than taking a cross-sectional snapshot. “We will see what causes what, and it will open up avenues for more interesting research.”

And, importantly, participants are also invited to undergo a detailed physical and mental health assessment, which will help tease out observed phenomena, such as the link between social engagement and heart health, says Timonen. “We don’t really know the pathways, there is something of a black box between social engagement and health.”

The pilot study launched last week is inviting 400 randomly chosen volunteers from around the State to take part in the social survey and then health assessments either in their homes or at two centres in Cork and Dublin. The suite of tests looks at heart health, brain function, vision, bone density, eye degeneration and mental health.

It expands on a smaller pilot of about 140 volunteers from south Dublin last summer, explains TILDA research fellow Claire O’Regan. The new, larger pilot will test out the logistics of the system on a national scale, but she adds that this is an observational study rather than a health check for individuals.

“They are donating their time to science, so we are not giving them a clean bill of health. Although we will give them the results of some tests that have meaning to them,” she says. “And if there’s anything acutely wrong with them, we advise them to go straight to the GP or to AE.”

So far the feedback has been positive as volunteers move through the pilot assessments, says O’Regan. “It’s a very nice experience. You are greeted at the door and a nurse stays with you as you move through the centre, you build up a rapport.”

Volunteer Geraldine Byrne from Dalkey, Co Dublin believes the study is a welcome step towards greater awareness about ageing. Two months away from her 90th birthday, she showcased the cardiovasular assessment at the launch in Trinity last week.

© 2009 The Irish Times