Prof. Brian MacCraith is a man with a plan! The President of Dublin City University (DCU) heads up Ireland’s first age-friendly university. Prof. MacCraith comments, ‘when people think of universities and ageing, they think, oh it’s lifelong learning. Of course that’s part of it but it’s much, much more than that’.So, what is the plan and where did it come from? Prof. MacCraith took up the post of president in 2010 and one of his first tasks was to deliver a keynote speech about what he wanted to do. His interest in ageing grew in part due to his involvement with Ageing Well Network, a think tank set up to discuss the multi-faceted issues of ageing, the challenges and the opportunities. He then did what every self-respecting manager should do – he set up a working group to examine the issue!
‘We set up a working group to look at how the university could best address ageing. It was, he added, ‘a very enthusiastic work group’. They came up with ten basic principles that would support an age-friendly university. Some of these are around encouraging older people to participate more in the various activities offered on campus including education and research programmes.
Other ideas include promoting intergenerational learning so that younger and older people learn together. The professor explains, ‘We bring older adults onto campus on a regular basis, to engage with school leaving students. Fundamentally, there is an exchange of wisdom and a massive enthusiasm. This is all voluntary work from students, they love it, absolutely love it’.
One of Prof. MacCraith’s more practical ideas was to appoint someone to lead the initiative,‘ we found we needed somebody who would wake up each day and just worry about the age friendly initiative so Christine O’Kelly is that person, that’s why there is a lot more things happening, a lot more co-ordination, a lot more publicity’.
Prof. MacCraith speaks about the first conference of age-friendly universities last year as, ‘a milestone target for us. We have universities in the US, UK, and we are talking to some in Australia now as well as a number of the Irish universities’.
So what else is happening? DCU are justifiably proud of staff member, Dr. Noel McCaffrey and his initiative, MedEx, a programme of exercise rehabilitation for people after a range of medical illnesses and medical interventions. ‘Typically six to seven hundred older adults come into our sports and fitness facilities every week going through this programme. There is one for post-cancer, post-cardiac, diabetes, COPD, all kind of chronic diseases, many of them associated with ageing’, adds Prof. MacCraith.
He goes on to state, ‘The impact has been incredible. I can give you data but the best data is talking to individuals. They will talk about their lives being transformed after entering the programme. They come in feeling at their lowest, maybe after chemotherapy or radiotherapy, but they start feeling more confident and the social network becomes hugely important. They are referred from hospitals which is important to us here in DCU – this is essentially run on a non-profit basis’.
DCU is also playing its part in collaborating with other organisations interested in ageing. He mentions Dublin Age Friendly Alliance and Age Friendly Ireland. Prof. MacCraith is also enthusiastic about collaborating with Dublin City Council to develop an age friendly park at the university, ‘One of the major advantages is the proximity of the park to the university and having an open connection between the campus and it’. Back to the idea of intergenerational mixing then.
Finally, Prof. MacCraith mentions DCU’s senior entrepreneurship programme, ‘the data worldwide shows that people are at their most entrepreneurial between 50 and 64’. Another interesting dimension, ‘is that people at a certain stage in life tend to get more focused on what they can give back, so social entrepreneurship is perhaps even more attractive’.
DCU are planning to develop what they are calling an advanced transition programme that will allow people pre and post retirement to think about it as, ‘structured planning of what you do with this next phase of life, in an active and healthy ageing way’.
The university has recently announced the addition of the former All Hallows complex in Drumcondra to the campus. They are already planning some new developments for older adults but more of that later.
Prof. MacCraith is very clear that a rapidly ageing population worldwide has implications for everyone, ‘our ultimate responsibility is towards students coming through and that’s why in the same way as climate change and sustainability, they need to know the ramifications of this, how society’s going to change very quickly’.
If you would like to know more about DCU’s age friendly policies, have a look at http://dcu.ie/agefriendly/index.shtml
Interview by Maretta Dillon