The Malta Independent 18 March 2019, Monday

'Hinged on the availability of age-friendly communities'

Andrew Azzopardi Wednesday, 23 May 2018, 09:49 Last update: about 11 months ago

I interviewed Prof. Marvin Formosa, Head of the Department of Gerontology, Faculty for Social Wellbeing. He holds the posts of Chairperson of the National Commission for Active Ageing (Malta) and Director of the International Institute on Ageing, United Nations - Malta (INIA).  He informed me that it is estimated that in 2016, Malta’s total population reached 460,297 persons, with 25.2% (116,009 persons) aged 60-plus and the 80-plus cohort reached 4.1% (19,019 persons). This confirms that Malta has now evolved out of a traditional pyramidal shape to an even-shaped block distribution of equal numbers at each cohort except at the top, with older women outnumbering older males. In 2060, the 65-plus/80-plus population will reach 28.5%/10.5% of the total population, from 17.5%/3.8% in 2013 (+11.0/6.7%). The 2015-2060 period will see the ‘old age’ dependency ratio in Malta increase from 26 to 51 percentage points, one percentage point higher than the EU average.



The following is the interview I had with him:


What are the main issues that you feel society is faced with nowadays in the area of gerontology and geriatrics?


The main issues featuring ageing in Malta and Gozo comprise the increasing number and percentages of older persons whose wellbeing is hinged on the availability of age-friendly communities. The key challenge here is to get the local councils on board as communities can only become age-friendly through a bottom-up approach where each and every citizen takes an active part. Unfortunately, local councils are not very pro-active as far as the advocacy for older persons is concerned, and expect, erroneously in my opinion, that the difficulties faced by older persons in their community have to be tackled by the central government.


What are the main challenges that older Maltese persons are facing?


The main challenges are related to the fact that the welfare system in Malta has become, metaphorically speaking, ‘a victim of its own success’. Whilst Malta has made great strides in increasing the awareness of age-related challenges, especially dementia, the existing available services are lacking in human resources and cannot keep up the demand for assistance on behalf of older persons. It is undeniable that the Parliamentary Secretariat for Persons with Disability and Active Ageing has taken a proactive stand as far as the repertoire of innovative community services for older persons are concerned, but there definitely needs more investment in human resources.


Are we still keen in this country to support each other, or do we need paid professionals to do the work?


The European Union’s Active Ageing Index shows in an unequivocal manner that the level of social capital is still strong in Maltese society. Malta scores very high in indices related to the caring of grandchildren, children, and spouses. However, as the fertility rate is very weak, as children migrate to other European Union countries, and as more daughters take on career jobs, the actual pool of potential informal carers will continue to diminish. This necessitates that the social assistance responsibilities currently taken on by relatives will need to be located either in the private market or some public-private welfare service.


What are the challenges that society are faced with in this area?


The primary challenge is to locate suitable persons who are willing, and also suited, to work as social carers. This is proving difficult as Malta is enjoying almost full employment. Hence, the influx for foreign social carers from countries such as the Philippines and India. This brings me to the second challenge - to ensure that the social carers have the right mix of attitude, knowledge and skills - and, perhaps most importantly - a Maltese language proficiency. I can vouch that the enacted government policies are on the right track, but ultimately, it is a race against time.


Are we providing 'enough' support services for older persons to live at home/in the community?


The available range of community care services for older persons in Malta is highly promising. For instance, whilst the handyman service provides various repair jobs that range from electricity repairs to plumbing to carpentry at nominal costs, the incontinence service provides diapers at a heavily subsidized prices. Active Ageing Hubs and Dementia Care Centres prevent social isolation and also function to provide much needed respite to informal carers. Other services include the night shelter service, respite service, Telecare Plus, home help, meals-on-wheels, the ‘Live-in Carer’ service, and perhaps most importantly, the Dementia Intervention Team. The forthcoming challenge is to ensure that the personnel providing such services are trained adequately.


How can we strengthen our communities to ensure they provide the right protection to this community?


In recent years, Malta witnessed a number of developments as far as legislation on elder abuse is concerned. In its drive to enact legislation that protects older persons from elder abuse, the Government introduced new deterrent measures in the Maltese Criminal Code, specifically dealing with abuse, which so far had been defined in a very broad manner, in order to encapsulate all forms of abuse but with special focus on maltreatment of older persons. Of course, much more is required on this front, especially elder abuse awareness programmes to police officers, social workers and health professionals.


What are the areas of research that your Department is working on?


The Department of Gerontology works on three key areas: gerontology of course, but also geriatrics and dementia studies. Since the Department has joined the Faculty for Social Wellbeing, two key publications on ageing in Malta have been published – ‘Ageing and Later Life in Malta’ and ‘Population Ageing in Malta’ - with a third publication – ‘Active and Healthy Ageing in Malta’ - to be published next October. Other areas of research include elder abuse, educational gerontology, geriatric care management, income security, digital competency, lesbian and ageing, successful ageing, and assistive technology.


What courses do you offer and in what way can they contribute towards improving our communities?


The Department of Gerontology offers a Master of Gerontology and Geriatrics, a Master of Arts in Ageing and Dementia Studies, and Doctorate studies. It employs three full-time resident academics and another 11 academic personnel on visiting contracts. Such numbers will rise in the foreseeable future once the Department initiates a Higher Diploma in Gerontology and Geriatrics in October 2018. The increasing number of students studying gerontology and geriatrics is also noteworthy. During the 2017-2018 academic year no less than 52 students were reading for a postgraduate degree at the Department of Gerontology, a considerable growth from 6 students in 2005.



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