Climate change mitigation, sustainability and the need to decrease social isolation and boost health and well-being in later life are common problems shared across the world.

Older adults often have a mix of networks and inter-generational ties, strong connections to particular places or environments, and are motivated to make meaningful contributions to society through engaging with their communities.

Moreover, they value the legacy they help create which makes them effective ambassadors of change, especially to peers and family/ social networks. In many fields, the role of “change ambassadors” has robust empirical support for achieving knowledge translation and behaviour change on the ground.

However, the climate change and sustainability movement has largely ignored harnessing the potential of older citizens to create change.

Supported by the UQ Global Change Institute (GCI), Professor Nancy Pachana and colleagues, in cooperation with their community partner Council on the Ageing (COTA) developed materials and training to empower older adults to become Sustainability Ambassadors.

By using older adults to spread information and energise behaviour change around sustainability, this existing project co-creates a long-term vector for change in sustainability behaviours, with positive health and social implications via formation of peer-led sustainability action communities.

The latter concept rests upon the value of membership in groups and engagement in meaningful activities to enhance health and well-being, and decrease social isolation.

Project Leader
Professor Nancy A. Pachana

Dr Nancy A. Pachana is a clinical geropsychologist, neuropsychologist and professor in the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland, and is co-director of the UQ Ageing Mind Initiative, providing a focal point for clinical, translational ageing-related research at UQ.

She has an international reputation in the area of geriatric mental health, particularly with her research on late-life anxiety disorders.

She is co-developer of the Geriatric Anxiety Inventory, a published brief self-report inventory in wide clinical and research use globally, translated into more than two dozen languages.

She has published more than 200 peer-reviewed articles, book chapters and books on various topics in the field of ageing, and has been awarded more than $20 million in competitive research funding, primarily in the areas of dementia and mental health in later life.

Her research is well-cited cited and she maintains a clear international focus in her collaborations and research interests, which include anxiety in later life, psychological interventions for those with Parkinson’s Disease, nursing home interventions, driving safety and dementia, teaching and learning in psychogeriatrics and mental health policy and ageing.

The Overarching Goal of the Project 

To address a lack of involvement in older persons by co-designing a series of externally funded research projects focusing on older citizen’s attitudes, experience and ability to work with others towards environmental sustainability actions.

Bringing together a group of international experts on environmental behaviour, place identification, behaviour change, interpersonal dialogue and personal decisionmaking, and healthy ageing, in partnership with community stakeholders, to expand the broader concepts of the Sustainability Ambassadors project across a range of contexts and countries, alongside relevant stakeholders and external partners.

The Research Goal of the Project

The research goal is impactful lines of enquiry, in partnership with community and industry, with inclusion of older persons and inter-generational policy and practice outcomes, as a priority.

Student Involvement in the Project Kane Solly has been working with Professor Pachana on his psychology honours project, collecting data from Sustainability Ambassador workshops. He has found that empowerment with respect to sustainability rose upon completion of the Sustainability Ambassador training.

This demonstrates that we are having a positive change which will increase the impact of our Sustainability Ambassadors and their networks.

Four Pillars of Success

The “Empowering Sustainable Communities” group four pillars of success: policy, research, community perspective, and social engagement.

As GCI Change Ambassadors, we will be focusing on four pillars:

1. Community Perspective
Community perspective on the older people living in the community.

2. Social Engagement
How do we engage across age groups in a way to engage older groups’ benefits which provide a vector for engagement?

3. Research
Science underpinning sustainability and engaging sustainability endeavours.

4. Policy
Those involved in setting or contributing currently barriers or enablers older people taking a more sustainable approach to their lifestyle.

International Partnerships
Michael A. Smyer

In June 2017, the GCI Sustainability Ambassadors project teamed up with Exeter University in the UK to conduct a two-day workshop to expand the Sustainability Ambassadors concept to the UK, and seek UK and EU funding for future projects. Our guest speaker was Professor Mick Smyer from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, USA.

Professor Smyer is interested in the impact of context on individuals’ experience of aging, most recently, the possible impacts of climate change on older adults.

Professor Smyer’s current research project, Graying Green: Climate action for an aging world, draws on climate communication, the psychology of aging and human-centered design to move people from anxiety to action to habit on climate issues. Graying Green views older adults as not only potential victims of climate change but also as potential leaders of climate action.