As Europe's population ages at an unprecedented rate - never before have people lived so long - statistics show that women are outliving men. And academics and researchers are increasingly calling for an examination of gender-based concerns in ageing.
"Women live longer than men almost everywhere. For example, in 2002, there were 678 men above 60 for every 1,000 women who were 60+ in Europe. At age 80 and over, the world average is below 600 men for every 1,000 women. In the more developed regions, women over 80 outnumber men of the same age almost 2:1," says Dr Alexandre Kalache, Head, Ageing Life Course Programme of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Birth rates in Europe have fallen, and life expectancy - particularly among women - is on the rise. Approximately, every fifth person in Europe today is a woman over the age of 50, according to the MERI (Mapping Existing Research and Identifying Knowledge Gaps Concerning the Situation of Older Women in Europe) Project - an EU-funded effort in cooperation with research institutions in 12 European countries.
"This is a remarkable statistic and, yet, not enough is known about the living conditions and problems of older women," says Professor Constantina Safilious-Rothschild, a Greek sociologist.
Safilious-Rothschild recently chaired a workshop on gender and age discrimination at a two-day conference in Vienna on 'Healthy Ageing in Europe'. Organised by the European Healthy Ageing Advocacy Forum (EHAAF), a network of 10 European NGOs, the conference attracted over 250 scientists, physicians, patients, senior citizen advocates, NGOs and policy makers from across Europe.
The number of people over the age of 60 will increase by almost 40 per cent by 2030 and, within the next four years, the number of 55- to 60-year-olds will outnumber those between the ages of 15 and 24, according to figures released by EHAAF at the conference.
A 2004 survey - European Quality of Life Survey (EQLS) - by Robert Anderson from the Dublin-based European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions in Europe confirms this trend.
That said, it is not ageing that is the concern. Retirement, active ageing and health over the course of people's entire lives are the true concerns. Mental well-being and the social dimension of health and opportunities for meaningful involvement in social networks and community life are equally important.
"Ageing societies are a reality, and they must be embraced as an opportunity. Politics must provide the framework to help create a modern image of the ageing person and the valuable contributions they can make to society," said Ursula Haubner, Austrian Minister of Generations and Social Affairs.
The EQLS survey found that discrimination in health care exists on the basis of age, gender, educational levels and socio-economic status. Over a third of all Europeans feel in excellent health, with 61 per cent in Denmark and Ireland but only nine per cent in Latvia. Predictably, the health status in the more affluent European countries is higher, with income levels influencing access to health services. People living in post-Communist countries were found to report health problems more frequently.
The survey also raised important issues for policy debates and initiatives, and about the inter-relatedness of ageing and gender. Women, for example, report lower incomes and greater deprivation in the household in all 28 EU countries.
These findings are supported by the findings of the MERI Project. The findings of a decade-long study by the MERI Project, released in 2004, showed a sad lack of research on older women as independent target groups. It stressed on the need for more investigative work to identify the situation of older women, lost within the vast amount of studies and surveys on older people in general.
"There are too many uncertainties at the moment. There are conflicting trends within different districts in Vienna alone. We desperately need more evidence. Encouraging future research work on older women is sure to raise public awareness and to improve the empirical basis of social and public policy," adds Anita Rieder, Professor of Social Medicine, Vienna University.
Safilious-Rothschild, also the founder of Hellas 50+, a Greek NGO that works to create awareness on ageing-related issues, says that she sees sexism entangled with ageism as well as with socio-economic discrimination. In Greece, 20 per cent of those over 65 years of age find access to health care very difficult due to distance (especially for rural dwellers), low incomes and low education levels (especially among women). "Gender bias also exists in the physician's stereotyping of women as being less endowed with rational thinking and more susceptible to hypochondria," she says.
It is a myth is that women and men age the same way. They do not. Women do age differently and live longer than men. Part of women's advantage with respect to life expectancy is biological. Far from being the weaker sex, they are more resilient than men at all ages, particularly during early infancy. In adult life too, women may have a biological advantage, at least until menopause, because their hormones protect them from heart diseases.
A matter of great concern on the continent is the North-South divide. Among the Scandinavian countries, there is research and action on ageing issues, even on gender and ageing. In southern Europe, on the other hand, there is a severe lack of data. In Greece, for example, the situation of older women continues to be uncharted territory.
Ultimately, it is essential for the countries individually, and the European Union as a collective, to address gender issues in ageing. The concerns of a fifth of Europe's population must not go unaddressed.