From amelioration to transformative local policy making: active ageing and age friendly as a legacy of Age Better in Sheffield 

Age Better in Sheffield Core Partner - Tony Maltby Ph.D

Tony is a passionate and lifelong advocate for the theory of active ageing and how this can be achieved through the Age-friendly approach. He has written this blog post which gives context and essential reading to anyone who is interested in the Age-friendly agenda.

I have been asked to write this ‘blog’ for the new Age Friendly Sheffield website to provide some context why the Age Better in Sheffield Core Partnership have pursued, as our legacy, enabling local policy making towards an active ageing paradigm through an Age Friendly approach: towards the creation of an Age Friendly Sheffield. I will provide reference to the literature and key links to various documents to assist the reader to pursue the subject matter in greater depth than this cursory blog can ever provide. I urge the reader to read beyond this blog. First, I will offer some insights into the meaning of active ageing as the World Health Organisation first propounded it. From this how this paradigm can be transferred into policy through an Age Friendly approach within the ‘eight domains’ described in this website. Thus, and in simplistic terms, active ageing is the theory and Age Friendly the policy practice and implementation.    

Active ageing 

On the global front, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advanced the multi-dimensional concept of active ageing as early as 2002 as (p.12): See Active Ageing: A policy framework 

The process of optimising opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age. Active ageing applies to both individuals and groups. It allows people to realise their potential for physical, social and mental well-being throughout their lives and to participate in society according to their needs, desires and capacities, while providing them with adequate protection, security and care when they require assistance. 

This has been condensed into the catchy ’Years have been added to life, now we must add life to years’.  The active ageing concept has made two important contributions to European (and global) discourses on life-course ageing. It added further weight to the case for a re-focusing of active ageing away from its narrow focus on employment (often referred to as ‘healthy and active ageing’. See the debate in Walker and Maltby, 2012) and towards a consideration of all of the different factors that contribute to well-being.  Specifically, it argues for the linkage, in policy terms, between employment, health and participation. Along similar lines, it emphasised the critical importance of a life-course perspective. In other words, and strategically important, to prevent some of the negative consequences associated with later life, it is essential to influence individual behaviour and its policy context at earlier stages of the life course. The WHO’s approach to active ageing also contributes to the growth of the discourse on older people as active participants in society that had been signalled so strongly at European level in 1993,(see Walker and Maltby, 1997). This was reiterated in the European response to the UN Year of Older People in 1999 and in 2012. The priority of active ageing as a framework was adopted by the UN’s Madrid International Action Plan on Ageing (MIAPA) in 2002, along with the principle of older people’s right to participate. 

Again, as was noted in the report ‘ Futurage: A road map for European Ageing Research’ (pp.12-14) in which I made a contribution, and in our discussions, the evidence base demonstrated that active ageing quickly emerged as a major multi-disciplinary theme among researchers. Rather than being one among several priority themes, moreover, ‘it is the ‘golden thread’ that links all of them’.  In scientific terms, active ageing is used as a helpful umbrella term to encompass various combinations of quality-of-life essentials such as continuous labour market participation, active contribution to domestic labour (caring, housework), active participation in community life and active leisure.  

Active ageing requires a social-ecological view of ageing. Different levels such as evidence-based policy action (macro), community and neighbourhood arrangements (meso) and individual intervention (micro) must go hand in hand in order to effectively promote active ageing. In addition, the social-ecology perspective implies a contextual view to be imposed on active ageing, because active ageing outcomes are significantly driven by the interplay between people and environmental resources and constraints. A social-ecology view also comes with a purposefully wide understanding of environmental levels, including the physical, spatial, social, economic, cultural legal and value context and the ‘chronosystem’, that is, the flow of individual and historical time as a context of active ageing. This also means that the concept of active ageing must be multi-disciplinary including, for example, sociology and social policy research, psychology, bio-gerontology and economics in order to acknowledge its holistic nature. Because of its integrative potential, the construct of active ageing aims to nurture the bridge-building between health, social participation and the role of place and context. Because of this, it leads naturally and inevitably into policy formulation and implementation. 

Indeed, while there are compelling scientific reasons to employ the concept of active ageing as a central theme for research, the political ones are no less so. In brief, the concept already has a major European and global profile. The European Year of Older People in 1993 represented the first proclamation by Europe of a new active and participative discourse in ageing. This was expanded into an outline of a European approach to active ageing during 1999, the United Nations (UN) Year of Older People. The European Commission’s policy document and the special conference it staged on the topic of active ageing set a radical vision of this concept and how it would be implemented across a broad field of national and European responsibilities.  

The Need for a Comprehensive Vision of Active Ageing 

 There is therefore a convincing need, based upon sound empirical and scientific evidence, for a new comprehensive paradigm of active ageing, one which brings together its gerontological heritage, stretching back to the 1960s ‘successful ageing’ concept, and the current pressing policy imperatives. This paradigm would also reflect the need for a life-course approach to ageing (in science, policy and practice) which transcends the traditional age segregation into three life stages – education, work and retirement built by the post 1948 welfare consensus. It adopts an age-integrated approach in which all three concurrently span much of the life course.  The foundations for a comprehensive approach to active ageing exist already in European and WHO documents. Their emphasis on well-being and participation is highly important as is the life-course focus. Also, crucially, ‘activity’ must consist of all meaningful pursuits (mental and physical) that contribute to the well-being of the individual concerned. Because of the dangers of exclusion, active ageing should not be focussed only on the young-old. For all age groups, it should be participative and empowering and, in public health terms, preventative. To these essentials must be added a division of labour and responsibility to underline the fact that active ageing depends on a wide range of different actors and cannot simply be a top-down imposition by policy makers. For example, ‘age management’ (See e.g. Maltby, 2011) in enterprises to improve opportunities for ‘older workers’, must be largely a matter for organisations themselves. Furthermore, we should not assume that active ageing exists as a fully developed entity but, rather, it should be seen as an aspiration, achieved through the adoption of an age friendly approach to policy implementation. Thus, it might be defined, as it was in the path breaking policy paper written by and adopted by Sheffield City Council in 2012 ‘A City for all  Ages’ as: 

A comprehensive strategy to maximise participation and well-being as people age. It should operate simultaneously at the individual (lifestyle), organisational (management) and societal (policy) levels and at all stage of the life course. 

An effective strategy for active ageing must be based on a partnership between the citizen and society. As far as society is concerned, the policy challenge is to recognise the thread that links together all of the relevant policy areas: not only employment, but also health, social protection, social inclusion, transport, education and so on. These are identified in the ‘domains’ for Age Friendly Cities and communities noted in this web.  A comprehensive active ageing strategy demands that all of them are ‘joined up’ and become mutually supportive: creating a true ‘Society for all Ages’ as expressed by the UN and within an Age Friendly policy dynamic. The parallel role of the citizen is to act with responsibility to take advantage of opportunities, for example in education and training, and to participate where appropriate.  

Active Ageing and Age Friendly  

To link such a comprehensive theoretical position to real life practical policy implementation is our ambition for legacy. Such an ambition is also being realised in an increasing number of national and international cities and communities across the globe.  For ABiS, our starting point was to build upon our successes, yet ensure that our legacy is truly transformative and not merely ameliorative.  That requires a different vision than the current perspective for much of social and public policy, which is built into a three year (at most) timescale of political expediency.  Our vision transcends such short termism.  As the WHO suggest, in their publication Global Age Friendly Cities: a Guide (2007) in an Age Friendly city, ‘policies, services, settings and structures support and enable people to age actively’ (pp.5and 6). Importantly, they note that, ‘Because active ageing is a lifelong process, an age-friendly city is not just ‘elderly friendly’’ (p.5).  Finally, they note an Age Friendly city (p.5) enables; 

Secure neighbourhoods, allow children, younger women and older people to venture outside in confidence to participate in physically active leisure and in social activities. Families experience less stress when their older members have the community support and health services they need. The whole community benefits from the participation of older people in volunteer or paid work. Finally, the local economy profits from the patronage of older adult consumers. The operative word in age-friendly social and physical urban settings is enablement.’ 

For me and ABiS what is therefore proposed is a transformative policy: in business jargon a win-win for the citizen and the local political economy. Much has been written and said about ’building back better’ out of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  In progressing this ‘offer to the city’ we offer a blueprint, a framework which can allow a brighter future, a legacy for our city and its citizens. It should be noted that Sheffield as a city as noted above, did accept the need and purpose for such an approach back in 2012. Now is the time to purposefully engage and enable the people of Sheffield to ‘add life to years’. 



Futureage: A road map for Ageing Research, (2011) European Commission FP7-Health -2007 –B/No 223679 Coordinated through Sociological Studies, The University of Sheffield 

Walker, A. and Maltby, T (1997) Ageing Europe, Open University Press, Buckingham. 

Walker, A. and Maltby, T. (2012) Active Ageing: A strategic policy solution to demographic ageing in the European Union, International Journal of Social Welfare, 21 (Supp. 1) S117 – S130.   

Maltby, T. (2011) ‘Extending working lives? Employability, Workability and better quality working lives. Social Policy and Society, 10 (3), 299-308.   

WHO (2002) Active ageing: A policy framework, Geneva World Health Organisation. 

WHO (2007) Global Age Friendly Cities: A Guide Geneva, World Health Organisation. 

Sheffield City Council (2012) A City for All Ages, Sheffield