Creating an age-friendly ecosystem in Oman

MUSCAT, JUNE 25 – Rapidly increasing life expectancy, falling fertility rates, and changing demographics, among other factors, are contributing to the steady growth of the ageing population, while threatening to unleash new fiscal challenges for countries around the world. The outlook is no different for the Sultanate of Oman which, saddled with burgeoning lifestyle disease trends, will also have to shoulder the cost burden associated with ensuring the well-being of the elderly.
But according to one of the world’s foremost experts on the ‘Smart Ageing Economy’, these challenges represent potential prodigious opportunities for countries that are quick to recognise the economic potential that an ageing population offers. In particular, Oman — given its inherent characteristics — is well-placed to become a regional player in the global smart ageing economy, says Anne Connolly (pictured), CEO, Ireland Smart Ageing Exchange (ISAX), a Dublin-based independent platform of industry, academia and government “collaborating to accelerate and commercialise innovations for the global older consumer market”,
Connolly, who will address this evening’s forum, said: “I will be outlining an introduction to what we call the Silver Economy as it is being themed — to give people an understanding about what’s driving it, how big is it, where the big sectoral opportunities, and to explore why a country like Oman might seek to make itself a leader in this rapidly emerging global smart ageing economy.”
Established in 2015, ISAX’s objective is to create a safe and stimulating environment for leaders across NGOs, government, service providers, business and academia to weigh the opportunities and challenges of population ageing, as well as to pilot studies and potential solutions to these challenges.
Founding members include major corporations, such as IBM and Nestle Skin Care, as well as universities, local municipal councils, senior care service providers, and the national health service.
The Sultanate, says Connolly, can learn from ISAX’s experience in creating a national smart ageing ecosystem that has made Ireland a global leader in this space. “Ireland is a bit like Oman; it has a small population — only 4.5 million, and relative to Europe, we are one of the youngest countries. In Oman, you have a young population at the moment with only a small percentage of people over the age of 65. We were where Oman presently is some 30-40 years ago.”

Changing demographics
But demographic structures are changing rapidly primarily because of increasingly life expectancy, she warns. “If you look at a country like Japan, for example, half of the children born today will live to the age of 107. In Ireland, it’s about 105, and in Oman, the figure will probably be around 100 years.”
These projections represent potentially immense market opportunities for businesses in Oman and elsewhere, according to the expert. The numbers of people over 65 years are expected to double over the next 20 years, while those over 80 years will like quadruple. “So there’s a huge market in itself — and it’s growing, but it’s a global market too,” she pointed out.
As a result of the changing demographics, the ratio of people of working age to retirement age is shrinking rapidly — a dilemma that fuels concerns over who will fund longevity. “Is it the individual? Is it the government through the pension system? Is it by extending the working life of individuals? Or a mixture of all of those?” Connolly asks.
As can be expected, some of the big opportunities associated with the ageing population related to health, says the expert. “Clearly it’s about preventing chronic diseases, keeping older people out of hospitals, getting better diagnostics, and very importantly, enabling them to go home faster through tele-health and remote care to monitor their conditions from afar, rather than have them staying in hospitals and nursing homes.”
Equally promising is the potential for financial services tailored to the ageing population, Connolly points out. “They are the wealthiest cohort out there with far more spending power than others. Thus, from the perspective of banks and other financial services providers, what more can they be doing in this space?”
Likewise, opportunities also abound in tourism — an industry that both Ireland and Oman set great store by. Oman, like Ireland, is a country with a rapidly growing tourist proposition, said Connolly, noting in this regard the potential for the Sultanate to become a leader in its proposition to the older independent traveller.

Older entrepreneurship
Besides, the ageing population also represents a wide pool of talent for employers to tap, particularly if the mandatory retirement cap (60 years in Oman) is lifted, she points out.
“Some people are concerned if you don’t force mandatory retirement, there are no new job opportunities for young people — but as we found out in Ireland, when married women were allowed to stay in the workforce, we actually grew the size of the productive workforce. The same is true in being able to tap into the talent of older people.”
In her interactions at the Ithraa ‘Inside Stories’ forum today, Connolly also plans to explore the opportunity for ‘older entrepreneurship’. “Why not support retirees in thinking about their own businesses? With all their engineering, marketing, IT, and other skills they have, why not set up a business?” she stressed.
The ISAX chief executive also envisions potential for the establishment of Age-Friendly Cities and communities in the Sultanate replicating Ireland’s successful participation in a landmark initiative by the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched in 2006. Age-friendly communities are now a ubiquitous feature of urban and rural life across Ireland.
“In a practical sense, it’s about making places safer at night, making it easier to be out and about, levelling the pavement, removing tripping hazards, improving the lighting and benches, making the towns are more walkable, and so on. If you want to improve the health and well-being of people, you also need to have them out and about and exercising more. You also need better housing, better access and transportation to hospitals, and so on.”
Also indispensable to the goal of creating a Smart Ageing Economy is the need to create a new social purpose for older adults. “We have this huge cohort of people who are quite often active and healthy, and it’s about creating new social roles where they can give back to society and contribute to the meaningful development of their communities,” she added.

Conrad Prabhu