Programs

The UNESCO chair in Anticipatory Systems will be focused on three main clusters of research projects, respectively named “The Discipline of Anticipation”, "Projects", and “Field Applications”. The following are a few selected topics characterizing each of them.

 



Networking to Improve Global/Local Anticipatory Capacities – A Scoping Exercise

UNESCO’s Foresight Section is conducting a scoping exercise regarding the establishment of a global network that would assist global, regional and local communities-of-practice in the field of anticipation. The outcomes of the scoping exercises will be made available towards end of 2014.

Picture from the Sfondrata meeting (The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, 20-24 May, 2013)

 

 



Ages of Life


The Youth


The Elderly

Introduction

The analysis of the problem of a society in which the elderly – by convention, those of age 65 or more – are becoming ever more numerous should be divided into at least two parts, each requiring different instruments of enquiry. The first component includes demographic trends and social policies that should address the resulting issues, such as pensions, healthcare, care homes etc. The second component regards the way in which the natural phenomenon of ageing is dealt with socially and psychologically. The first attitude takes a 'positivist' view, the second a 'phenomenological' view. The magnitude and gravity of the problem of ageing are so great that any exclusively positivist strategy is doomed to failure from the start. Only a careful analysis of the ways in which ageing is dealt with socially and psychologically (the social and mental models of the elderly) and their eventual transformations can provide operational suggestions adequate to the seriousness of the situation.

It should also be noted that the information pertaining demographic trends is well known, and the debate on social policies is as lively as ever. The positivist side can thus be taken as given and well explored. On the contrary, the phenomenological side is entirely marginal to the current discussion. One of the reasons for this is that the phenomenological viewpoint has thus far remained within highly specialised professional circles, such as geriatrics and psychopathology, that are characterised by a technical language and cultural references of non-trivial accessibility. Also, the phenomenological point of view itself needs to be further developed before it may be applied to suggest an effective policy of transformation of social and psychological models of the elderly. One of the goals of this project is precisely to develop and systematically transform the phenomenological schema, both individual and collective, of understanding of the elderly.

Before going any further, it is necessary to distinguish between ageing and death as natural phases of the cycle of life, and the social handling thereof. Advanced modern societies appear to have lost or greatly diminished their ability to positively deal with ageing and the terminal phases of life. This loss of social capital is a direct consequence of social models based on youth, beauty, success and consumption that have dominated western societies particularly after the second World War. The reduction if not complete loss of social ability to appropriately deal with ageing has a social cost that, as a consequence of the progressive swelling of the elderly cohorts, is becoming ever greater, to the point of becoming explicitly and actively dysfunctional. The social and individual inability to deal with the stages of ageing and with death in a natural way explains why a purely positivist outlook is insufficient. As important as raw data may be, and we'll be the first to support it, something more is required: a perspective to help us understand the profound reasons for the present inability to correctly deal with the problems of ageing. Only in light of this more profound knowledge may we formulate guidelines for intervention that can systematically enhance the social fabric and will not lead to a waste of public and private resources.

The research project we propose will concentrate on the age bracket 65-80, and will not deal with the problem of the extremely elderly (beyond 80). Also, this document will focus only on the issue of depression within the elderly by way of example, intentionally leaving aside all other aspects that will be part of the actual project itself.

From old age as a problem to old age as a challenge

Old age is the phase of life in which several moments of crisis tend to structurally accumulate; typically, these include the loss of significant relationships, the decline in bodily strength and energy, isolation and social outcasting, loss of economic resources and personal autonomy, onset of somatic and chronic illnesses, and so forth. As a consequence, the elderly normally develop several syndromes in parallel. It is therefore imperative for a correct intervention to avoid confusion between the various orders of difficulty. The more numerous the unresolved crises are, the higher the likelihood of depression. Depression in the elderly is a greatly underestimated phenomenon, often unrecognised and hence confused with other problems, and nearly always considered a 'normal' phenomenon, 'typical of' or 'compatible with' old age, thereby paving the way for its transformation into a psychiatric problem with all the stigma associated with mental disease.

The evaluation of depression is thus one of the crucial points for planning and organising adequate intervention.

Before examining the ways in which depression sets in in more detail, we can already take something away from what has been said so far to bear in mind when developing an operative strategy. In essence:

More in detail, the causes of depression are manifold and can probably all be viewed as aspects of a protracted psychic overburdening. In very broad terms one might recall by way of example the experience of constant solitude, the sense of uselessness, the impression of impotence, the relational stresses. An important role in the inception of depression is played by various subjective components, such as gender, and relational ones, such as marital status. In general, life events strongly influence emotional health. The aforementioned risk factors need to be carefully detected and used as diagnostic tools, avoiding prejudiced diagnoses as symptoms determined solely by age rather than as signals that require a specific evaluation by family members, health workers and more generally by social policies.

Within this framework, it is important to underline that the continuing difficulties are more important than single, acute episodes of difficulty. Some of the consequences that regularly go hand in hand with depression are the loss of interest in the surrounding context, social retreat, loss of hope, to which often a deterioration in the somatic state follows and hence a greater need of intervention by the health service.

Strategies to combat depression seek to maintain or rekindle the interest in the surrounding environment, the availability of social involvement, the encouragement to maintain a positive attitude, to which often an improvement of the somatic state follows, and hence a lessened need of intervention by the health service.

In other words, psychological well-being echoes in somatic well-being. Crudely, the more people are psychologically satisfied, the less they are a burden on, and a cost to, society.

The project's nature

Despite what has been said so far, to describe this project as one dedicated to the problem of ageing or, in less sanitised terms, to the “problem of a social reality characterised by elevated numbers of elderly people” (>65) would not be entirely correct. Both descriptions are partial and do not shine the spotlight on the real underlying problem, which we would like to describe as follows: the current mental and social models of the elderly are dysfunctional, both individually (psychologically) and collectively (socially). The psychological dysfunction lies in contributing to the aggravation of otherwise naturally arising problems without any apparent benefit, laying the groundwork for them to become chronic and institutionalised. The social dysfunction lies in the corresponding loss of social capital and in the explosion of the cost of services variously connected to the elderly. In addition, the social dysfunction of the social models of the elderly contributes to aggravate inter-generational relationships.

As succinct as this description of the issue may be, and thus in need of further details, it does underscore how any attempt to tackle the problem of ageing directly without also addressing the issue of mental and social models of the elderly would lead to a strategy doomed to failure.

The above reasoning leads us to identify the nature of the problem that the project is to face: how does one modify the mental and social models, and the consequent habits and behaviours, related to the elderly? The issue is the one of changing the social models within a community: this is an issue of exquisitely sociological interest. In order to tackle it, one needs a vision, a strategy, and a systematic monitoring effort of the changes as they happen.

The vision also includes reference values; why should we wish to change the currently active models? A few answers, in order of 'transparency', are the following: to recover or develop a positive sense of old age, to increase the community's social capital, to improve the sustainability (i.e. lessen) the cost of services to the elderly, to develop a less dysfunctional community, i.e. a more robust one, with a higher level of resilience – see P. Martin-Breen e J. Marty Anderies, Resilience: A Literature Review. The Rockfeller Foundation, September 18, 2011). The strategy will set out how to proceed, the monitoring will keep track of the evolution of the project and verify whether the objectives have been achieved. It will be necessary to adopt and possibly develop a number of indicators of the cultural and behavioural changes in progress, as well as the level of resilience of the system. Also, it will have to be established whether the results are robust: assuming the modification of mental and social models of the elderly is successful, do the new models remain stable in time, and do they continue to function or do they revert to the previous ones after a while?

All this implies that the project will have to run on a continuing basis.

Project outline

The research project will attempt to involve the entire body of stakeholders. Although the focus of the project is that of the elderly, since the project also includes a process of modification of the social model of the elderly it is necessary to proceed in inclusive terms. Professional, social, religious organisations within civil society, cooperatives, institutions, political parties, media and so forth, all have a role to play.

The following are factors to be taken into account:

In general, the coherence and transparency of communication will be crucial factors for the project's success. It will thus be important to make systematic use of new media and to regularly publish a bulletin, e.g. semi-annually, to inform on activities, research and results. It will also be indispensable to set up a website to act as a document repository for all stakeholders. Information relating to the project must be complete and easily accessible (accountability as a precondition for development of an attitude of trust). Systematic connections with the best operators in the field – geriatrics, psychology, sociology etc – and with the main international research centers are also crucial.

Conclusion

The project aims to transform old age from a problem that is set to become socially dysfunctional into a challenge for the establishment of an integrated communal reality, characterised by high levels of social capital. One of the entirely innovative characteristics of the project is the systematic use of forecasting methods with the aim to 'visualize' both the magnitude of problems building up and the associated opportunities that may arise. Preconditions for the project's success are its continuity in time and the inclusive involvement of interested social agents.

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