Gerontology for Geriatricians – with Style

Professor Desmond (Des) O’Neill is a Geriatrician in Tallaght University Hospital and Trinity College Dublin. He tweets @Age_Matters

One of the key challenges of being a geriatrician is to be able to gain a sense of the wider perspective of ageing. Although geriatricians and gerontological nurses are the gerontologists who have the most day-to-day contact with older people, this is often with those who are frail and living with multimorbidity. It is increasingly recognised that we need to lift up our heads and see the bigger picture to protect us from adopting the failure model of ageing and instead gain an appreciation of the positivity of the longevity dividend. I recommend to all trainees in geriatric medicine that they should attend at least one broad-based international gerontology meeting during their five years as a trainee.
The largest and most comprehensive of these meetings is hosted by the Gerontological Society of America, held usually in early November with an abstract submission date in mid-March. Attracting around 5000 participants and hosting 30 to 40 parallel sessions, a trainee or geriatrician can encounter virtually every subject and every expert in gerontology in a dizzyingly varied programme. I remember being fascinated at my first GSA in 1987 that while we were discussing older drivers in our room, the adjoining rooms featured the differential ageing of guppies in pools as the river ascended, and gay and lesbian ageing. There is significant input in advances from health gerontology, but also from the biology of ageing, sociology of ageing, psychology of ageing, policy, and -one of my particular areas of interest - humanities, arts and cultural gerontology. This year the meeting will be in Indianapolis, and our humanities and arts panel is undertaking projects on ageing with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and a local museum of American-Indian art.
However, my favorite gerontology meeting is the Nordic Gerontology Congress which takes place every two years, rotating between the Nordic countries. The Congress is in June with abstracts due in the preceding December or January. The range is wide, the numbers smaller (500-1,000 delegates), standards of research and scholarship very high, and all sessions delivered in English. Last time, the host city was Odense, the third largest in Denmark, with an attractive city centre set in verdant rolling countryside and notably the birthplace and centre of attention for Hans Christian Andersen. In addition, the South Denmark University in Odense has carved out a remarkable profile for interdisciplinary research in ageing, and past BGS president Tash Masud had been a visiting professor at the university for a number of years.
The keynote speakers were excellent, starting with a superb introduction to ageing as perceived in literature by Peter Simonsen, whose talk included a fascinating project of engaging with a reading group of men in a Men’s Shed setting. This was followed with an exemplary overview of trends in the epidemiology of ageing by Kaare Christensen. Both presentations showed an enviable ability to present very complex fields of study to a generalist gerontology audience. This trend was followed in nearly all further keynotes ranging from very revealing insights into the challenges of providing gerontological care to minority groups by Dorthe Nielsen, and the opportunities for digital health to support gerontology care by Karen Andersen-Ranberg, to an excellent summary of progress in the science of falls by Tash Masud.
The symposia and free sessions were presented across nine different parallel sessions, a very manageable number, with occasional unavoidable clashes of areas of interest. However a charm of the meeting is that it is very easy to meet up with speakers in a session that you were unable to attend. I was particularly impressed by a strong focus on quality of life and quality of care in long term care, both in the community and in nursing homes. It is also nice to learn of new ways of thinking: novel concepts for me included that of moving from reflective thinking to diffractive thinking, and the concept of resonance as conceived by German sociologist Hartmut Rosa on adapting and coping with the speeding up of life and processes central to the project of modernity.
The social programme and setting were excellent, with nicely presented food, coffee available on tap all the way through the meeting, and a very pleasant buffet-style Congress dinner which facilitated networking. As I am currently working on a project on ageing through the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, I was very pleased to be able to visit the brand new and innovative museum dedicated to him and his work. A further pleasure was a nighttime tour organized by the Congress which retraced the steps of night watchmen by a volunteer group maintaining this tradition, and which immersed us in the Odense and Denmark of Hans Christian Andersen’s time.
The 2024 Congress will be hosted by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, a city whose charms are optimally viewed in the midsummer light. A stimulating programme and sociable experience can be guaranteed for all willing to venture outside the confines of our specialty to appreciate the big picture of ageing.


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