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Stakeholders join forces to create age-friendly environments across Europe

Launched in January 2016, the EU Covenant on Demographic Change is committed to creating environments that support active and healthy ageing through the exchange of best practices. The AFE-INNOVNET project, which aimed to set up this covenant, managed to bring together 29 partners from 18 countries.
Stakeholders join forces to create age-friendly environments across Europe
The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that physical and social environments are key determinants of whether people can remain healthy, independent and autonomous long into their old age — hence the establishment of the Age-Friendly Cities programme and guidelines in 2005, followed in 2006 by the launch of the Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities (GNAFCC).

While pilots of such age-friendly environments are springing up all over Europe, they are often limited in scale. Contributing to the implementation of the WHO’s age-friendly concept in Europe — notably the development of dementia-friendly cities — was the core objective of the AFE-INNOVNET (Thematic Network on Innovation for Age-Friendly Environments) project, led by Julie Wadoux from AGE Platform Europe.

What would you say are the most concrete benefits of the project?

Firstly, the AFE-INNOVNET Thematic Network helped us support the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing (EIP-AHA), in particular the D4 Action Group dedicated to age-friendly environments. This was done notably by increasing the number of stakeholders, providing us with tools to support the exchange of good practices (e.g. webinars, workshops), and developing methodologies around the participation of older people at local level and the monitoring and evaluation of age-friendly environment initiatives.

Secondly, thanks to the AFE-INNOVNET Thematic Network, the launch of the Covenant on Demographic Change was made possible. One of the Covenant’s main strengths is that it has managed to align itself with and connect to existing key initiatives and processes in order to avoid duplications and offer European stakeholders a united platform. Full members of the Covenant can now ask to be registered as a member of the WHO Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities and at the same time sign the Dublin Declaration 2013 on age-friendly cities and communities in the EU.

Thirdly, the project has allowed cities and regions to share experiences and to establish closer relationships beyond the project. Without being too idealistic, it has brought back the very basic European added value of cross-border cooperation on a key challenge faced by all cities and regions across the EU.

How did you pick the members of the consortium?

The core group of consortium members, mainly the work package leaders, were actually organisations with which we were already working under the EIP-AHA. It was a key starting point because we knew that these partners shared the same vision and were used to working together.

On top of that, we needed to bring on board additional cities and regions to meet the requirement of the call which made it compulsory to have at least seven cities and three regions involved. The challenge here was to make sure that we would achieve a good geographical balance, have small/medium local and regional authorities as well as larger ones, and include both front runners in the area of age-friendly environments and cities or regions willing to start working on this issue.

We used the contacts we established in the past through for example the EU Open Days and the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations 2012, as well as the existing WHO Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. All in all, 18 different EU countries were represented.

How did you proceed to facilitate access to best practices?

We used different ways. First, we established an online repository of good practices. The tool is very easy to use with some search criteria based on country, the eight domains as described in the WHO concept of age-friendly cities and the status of the practices (completed, ongoing or planned).

Another contribution resides in the organisation of 10 webinars over the two years of the project. We tried to bring different partners on board to make short presentations of their initiatives and experiences. We also organised five workshops in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland and Poland which offered the opportunity to have face-to-face meetings and presentations, as well as field visits, and organised four consortium meetings.

Finally, the project’s final conference, which launched the Covenant on Demographic Change and was co-organised with the WHO and the European Commission, welcomed 120 participants.

What are, according to you, the main reasons behind the lack of scaling-up of dementia-related innovation in Europe?

There are many different reasons and it is not easy to summarise them. There is a wide range of actors who need to be involved, great diversity among end-users, as well as many funding sources. Each of these situations requires special attention, because the barriers and the leverage effects can be different.

From a wider perspective, I would also like to highlight the following aspects: the lack of tools and methodologies to guide investments; public budgets which are divided into silos and split between different authorities; the fact that dementia and ageing are too often approached from a medical perspective only, in spite of the need to take into account the whole environment the person is living in; and, finally, stigma around dementia. They prevent stakeholders from taking a meaningful user-centric approach and from considering cognitive impairment as a dimension to be included when a product or a service is designed.

The latter is the most challenging issue, but resolving it would probably be the most effective way of improving the quality of life of both people with dementia and carers, while eventually alleviating pressure on public budgets.

Now that the project is completed, what can you tell us about the success of the Covenant so far?

The Covenant was officially established as a legal entity in January 2016, under Belgian law. This is now a formal association with 140 members, a third of which are local and regional authorities. The first Board was elected in January and is now working on the development of a concrete work programme for the coming years.

Today, the Covenant provides its members with a good platform for exchanging and linking up: it has already helped some members to join EU-funded projects, will organise a debate during the European Week of Regions and Cities in October 2016 and will participate actively in the Second Innovation Summit on Active and Healthy Ageing in December 2016. The Covenant is also working closely with the WHO Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities and will support its dissemination at EU level.

We also expect the Covenant to be actively involved in upcoming EU-funded projects, including a new project which will set up and launch an award scheme rewarding innovative solutions that have a significant impact on the quality of life of the ageing population.

Funded under CIP
project website

Source: Interview from research*eu results magazine n. 55 p.4-5

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