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Special populations: Never too old for sport – the world’s first Sports Games for the Elderly

Enjoying the highest life expectancy in the world, Andorra took active participation for pensioners to another level this year, by staging the world’s first Sports Games for the Elderly. Kath Hudson reports

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management Oct 2016 issue 127
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Andorra has the highest life expectancy in the world at 83.5 years, and the elderly are unusually healthy and active
Andorra has the highest life expectancy in the world at 83.5 years, and the elderly are unusually healthy and active

While out running last week, I was overtaken by a 76-year-old man who – I discovered – only took up running in his 40s. He’s since become a serial marathon runner.

An 80-year-old woman is a regular face on Cornwall’s triathlon circuit, knocking out times people a fraction of her age would struggle to beat.

Yet frequently this demographic is not catered for by sports clubs and local authorities. More often than not, they consider people over 50 to be ‘older customers’ and there’s little in the way of organised competitive sport aimed at septagenarians, or older.

Active ageing
Andorra – a tiny principality which sits in the Pyrenees, between France and Spain – went against this trend when it staged its Sports Games for the Elderly this June. An initiative of the Olympic Committee of Andorra, funded by Olympic Solidarity, the event was organised in collaboration with the government, municipalities and the Senior Andorrans Federation.

For the first half of 2016 activities were organised to prepare potential participants for the main event on 15 June. Elderly people were invited to get ready for competitions and participate in organising the event, along with school children and experts.

According to a spokesperson for the Olympic Committee of Andorra, the idea was mooted by the board of the Olympic Committee, in keeping with Andorra’s efforts to become an age-friendly society.

“The board asked Olympic Solidarity for funding and they gave us a grant spread over four years,” he says. “We consulted elderly people on what activities they liked doing and then we prepared the Games with 12 different activities adapted to the elderly.”

Those sports included billiards, gymnastics, golf, swimming, orienteering, archery and bocce in the morning, with quieter games like dominoes, cards and dancing in the afternoon and the day ended with a glittering awards gala, and a ‘convivial evening’ in keeping with the spirit of the Olympics.

Each of Andorra’s seven municipalities fielded a team and 300 people spanning 60 to 90 years of age took part on the day. The same number participated in events running up to the main event in June.

“The feedback was fantastic,” says the spokesperson. “Elderly people spend a lot of time at home, in front of the tv, but when you give them a push they are very happy to try something different. It was so satisfying to see how happy they were.”

“We didn’t push too much, or put pressure on people to take part, we said, ‘it’s a nice day to be part of, with a big paella to eat, if you want to participate in an event you can. If you prefer to volunteer, don’t worry.’ We didn’t push people to train hard and to win. It wasn’t all focussed on the sport – the focus was to create a happy day. Luckily people liked the idea.”

When dealing with elderly people, health and safety is a major concern, so events were held close to the hospital. Fortunately, there were no injuries.

Forever young
While a date for another Games for Andorra’s elderly inhabitants is yet to be set, there is the appetite to make it happen. The Olympic Committee of Andorra would like to take its experience of this Games and hold another event in a couple of years, as they believe that even more people would participate and they could build on their great success.

So, could this type of event be replicated in other countries? Andorra does have a few advantages. Firstly, it has a clement climate. The weather is very important for an outdoor event concerning the elderly. If the weather is unsettled, it makes sense to either plan indoor activities, or have a Plan B that allows the event to be moved indoors on the day.

Andorra has an unusually active and healthy elderly population, enjoying the world’s highest life expectancy of 83.5 years, according to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO). Many people surpass this, living into their late 90s.

Never too old
The country also has a proactive approach to looking after its ageing population. Andorra la Vella set out its aim to become an age-friendly city in March 2013, prioritising the improvement of quality of life for the elderly and the promotion of active aging. An inter-governmental approach was formed, involving all relevant NGOs, the Ministry of Health and Welfare, as well as companies and individuals. An advisory committee under the presidency of the mayor was also formed, including representatives of social and health services, a gerontologist and two elderly people. The Elderly Games was a natural progression of this society-wide respect for older people.

Added to this, Andorra has managed to cultivate a largely stress-free lifestyle, focussed around good natural food and a healthy, outdoor lifestyle. Older people still routinely walk in the mountains and tend their gardens, and even those in assisted living residences have access to a gym and mountain walks.

Each parish has a state-of-the-art public leisure centre, offering free activities for older people, as well as frequent free public transport.

According to WHO, Andorra has the third best public health system in the world. Residents enjoy a feeling of wellbeing and safety – having been untouched by war for more than 700 years, Andorra doesn’t have an army and, for its population of 70,000, there is just one prison, with about 50 inmates.

Smoking and drinking red wine is still popular, but more to have a good time than to offset stress.

Longer lives

Researcher Dan Buettner, author of Blue Zones: Lessons From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest conducted a research into longevity, funded by National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging. He identifies these factors as being crucial for a long life: a regular, natural tendency to be active; a habit of eating less; a plant-based diet; active participation in a community and a life purpose.

According to NHS Choices, older adults are the most sedentary age group, spending an average of 10 or more hours a day sitting or lying down. This then leads to higher rates of falls, obesity and heart disease.

There is strong evidence to show that active people have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, depression and dementia. Exercise reduces aches and pains, improves mental health and maintains independence.

NHS Choices recommends 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, preferably in bouts of 10 minutes or more, such as fast walking, water aerobics, cycling, playing doubles tennis or pushing a lawn mower. While heavy gardening counts, daily chores do not.

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