Interview with Desmond O'Neill“Ageing is the richest time of life.”
Could you start by introducing yourself? Academic background, work and topics that you have worked with in your career?
My name is Des O’Neill, I am a geriatrician and an academic teacher in a hospital, but also a professor of medical gerontology in Trinity College Dublin. My particular interests in terms of research are older drivers and medical fitness to drive, which is also why I have met Anu (Mature project coordinator) many times. The other area is around cultural gerontology, which is related to medical humanities. It is about what arts and humanities can tell us about the human condition; what they can tell us about wellness, illness and transitions through the health care system. That is what I do, which is just utterly fascinating as ageing is the richest time of life. It is a privilege and a pleasure to work with people who have had this long life course.
What is your latest/on-going project?
My latest project is working with a group of architects and designers around what is called dementia friendly design, but what we are really trying to get to is inclusive design, as the original concept of universal design was rather weak on including cognitive skills and parameters of physical sensory. We have done a typology of Irish hospitals, and we have undertaken surveys of the whole hospital side, which is unique about these studies. We looked at parking and access, and these kind of things, from where we developed a set of guidelines. I am also involved with numbers of other studies, but one, which particularly interests me, is around the concept of aesthetic deprivation and healthcare settings. A very important part of our wellness and humanity would be our cultural measure of support whether it is music, pictures, movies, and whatever else. We tend to forget this in hospital settings, and as in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where below self-actualization, there is aesthetics, which is very important.
How is the field of ageing in Ireland?
It is quite strong at geriatric medicine point of view, relatively strong on gerontological nursing, but probably has a more modest output of social gerontology, that is beginning to change. It is also relatively little on psychology of ageing and biology of ageing. Ireland has been an enthusiastic adaptor of the age-friendly cities and communities, so that is a work in progress. In fact this has been really a work of genius by the WHO, where they realized that there are many people queuing behind the health minister, and they want lots of money for things, but for age-friendly communities it’s often quite small sums of money that can make a big change for older people.
What is your personal point of view on population ageing?
I welcome it very much, I think it is an absolutely bonus and one of our key challenges is to unpick a very negative discourse, and celebrate what is known as the longevity dividend. I do this through the metaphor of the late life creativity, but I also talk about things like the economical longevity dividend and also the bonuses we get through safer older drivers. They are socially conscious, ecological, vote in large numbers, and have a stronger belief in institutions compared to younger people. It is a huge benefit, and not only is the disability dropping with older people, but also the rate of dementia is dropping in many countries. For example, in the UK for the last decade, despite the 11% increase in the number of over 65s, there has been a drop in the use of nursing home beds.
Is there still something you would like to research? A topic that would need more focus?
What most interests me, is around establishing the cultural gerontology and medical humanities, which is very integral. For instance, I would love one of my medical trainees to do a PhD around ageing and illness through some form of art. The other area of interest is sexuality, which we do not talk a lot about, even though sensuality and erotic memory are important throughout our lives. The reason why I am interested in this is because there are always potential windows and portals into communicating and sharing humanity with people.
I also want to mention that I am impressed by the Mature project, and in European terms we are very much impressed with Denmark. I think there is a very strong emphasis here to include older people as welcomed members to society.
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