Pulse Articles Sustainable well-being

Empow­erment of Older People in Inter­na­tional Collab­o­ration between Karelia UAS and CUAS

In this article we aim to discuss the empow­erment of older people through inter­na­tional collab­o­ration in higher education. We focus on analysing some pedagogical objec­tives and choices to deepen activ­ities that have already begun between the education insti­tu­tions of Karelia UAS (Finland) and CUAS (Austria). We utilise a partic­i­patory action research framework to state our arguments and to describe our practical sugges­tions for pedagogical solutions in this field of interest. 

The research questions are: How can demographic devel­opment due to the ageing process be viewed from an inter­na­tional perspective? What practical recom­men­da­tions for empow­erment and active ageing can be derived from this, and how can these be commu­ni­cated pedagog­i­cally? In the discussion section we define empow­erment of older people as a concept, and describe some pedagogical needs and possi­bil­ities for the future according to previous studies. As conclu­sions we state that partic­i­pation, inter­dis­ci­pli­narity and empow­erment are made possible on the most diverse levels, such as students, teachers, projects and the discussion of organ­i­sa­tional questions. Inter­na­tional collab­o­ration between our education insti­tu­tions advances the compe­tence of future profes­sionals and the empow­erment of older people.


Ageing is a worldwide phenomenon, and the number of older people is rapidly increasing globally. To respond to possi­bil­ities and challenges of this megatrend in society, higher educa­tions of applied sciences in Finland (Karelia University of Applied Sciences) and Austria (Carinthia University of Applied Sciences) have collab­o­rated actively in recent years on these issues, in an attempt to find empowered solutions to this contem­porary phenomenon.

Karelia UAS and CUAS have the same kinds of strate­gical objec­tives to ageing issues. Applied science, research and devel­opment are strongly on the agenda in both insti­tu­tions, e.g. at the Institute for Applied Research on Ageing (IARA) at CUAS. For these reasons, precon­di­tions and organ­i­sa­tional struc­tures support and advance productive and future-oriented collab­o­ration between Karelia UAS and CUAS. On a practical level, the shared interests of ageing between teachers and the same kinds of pedagogical approaches promote a different kind of collab­o­ration “in the ageing and digital era”. For example, a joint study module piloted online in 2020 in the Active Ageing master’s degree programme at Karelia UAS and the Disability and Diversity Studies bachelor’s degree programme at CUAS represent several oppor­tu­nities to study and learn via online and independent of place. Furthermore, on a practical level different kinds of common projects, devel­opment work and cooper­ation have been done in recent years between these organ­i­sa­tions, such as cooper­ation in the EMMA Project (Erasmus+) and the AliVe project appli­cation in 2022 (Erasmus +).

In line with these strategic and collab­o­rative aspects, in this paper we aim to discuss the empow­erment of older people in inter­na­tional higher education collab­o­ration and focus on analysing some pedagogical objec­tives and choices to deepen activ­ities that are already in progress between our education insti­tu­tions on this topic. We focus on utilising a partic­i­patory action research framework to state our arguments and to describe our practical sugges­tions for pedagogical solutions in this field of interest. Our research questions are: How can demographic devel­opment due to the ageing process be viewed from an inter­na­tional perspective? What practical recom­men­da­tions for empow­erment and active ageing can be derived from this, and how can these be commu­ni­cated pedagogically?


The origin of the concept of empow­erment lies in the philoso­phies of community work, which empha­sises people’s power and partic­i­pation. The idea of empow­erment is to raise people’s social consciousness and change the environment to eliminate the social constraints acting on people’s lives (Kam 1996, 231). Empow­erment theory connects individual well-being with the wider social and political environment, and suggests that people need oppor­tu­nities to become active in community decision-making in order to improve their lives, organ­i­sation and commu­nities (Zimmermann 2000, 58). In this context, the empow­erment of older people is under­stood from the perspec­tives of three levels of action: individual, social group and society. Demographic change shows that it is important to recognise older people as an independent, hetero­ge­neous group and to strengthen their abilities and skills. Under­standing empow­erment in a broad way, as explained above, also leads to social inclusion of people in old age.

An idea of empow­erment is histor­i­cally closely linked to the fight for civil, human and social rights (pedagogy of the oppressed, the US civil rights movement, feminism and self-help movements). Empow­erment is intended to help people under­stand the effect of power and to promote their own power in order to reduce disad­van­tages. It turns to people’s individual and collective resources, and could of course also lead to profes­sional attitudes in the sense of helping other people (peer counselling) (Lenz & Stark 2002).

However, empow­erment as a concept is difficult to define, since it depends very much on specific forms of action of the persons involved in practice, commu­nities, etc. (Zimmermann 2000). Below we list examples of struc­tural barriers of empow­erment among older people according to Berry (2009), de Souza (2003) and Lauder et al., 2006): Low levels of income, lack of money, poverty, loneliness, living alone and mobility problems, widowhood, poor sense of belonging, lack of optimism, ill health, lack of trust and poor mental health, negative stereo­types towards members of older gener­a­tions, and low levels of community-level social capital may be associated with higher levels of depression. In the inter­na­tional higher education context, former points of views are vital. Described defin­i­tions of struc­tural barriers express the universal nature of ageing issues; therefore, the empow­erment of older people concerns us regardless of where we live. An inter­na­tional comparison in particular shows that the social, insti­tu­tional and individual challenges associated with old age and demographic change are similar and that empow­erment of this group of people can therefore also be discussed jointly. The reflection on the joint study module, which was carried out in 2020, showed that similar problems and fields of research were identified in the exchange between students.

The conse­quences of demographic change in ageing guide educators to consider and analyse ageing issues more accurately. From an inter­na­tional perspective, collab­o­rative discus­sions and analysis widen the points of view and support to see all the dimen­sions of ageing. In practice, by focusing on individual, insti­tu­tional and societal levels, students are able to recognise entan­gle­ments of demographic change, and can find solutions to provide recom­men­da­tions to support empow­erment at all levels for individuals, groups, policies, etc. Hand in hand with these perspec­tives, inter­na­tional collab­o­ration brings in future-oriented approaches and novel pedagogical solutions, and enables students and teachers to learn from each other by sharing good practices.

Regarding previous studies of concep­tions of learning and online learning environ­ments among higher education social and health care students, students’ learning concep­tions and tradi­tional learning contexts and styles are rupturing as online and collab­o­rative learning is increasing.  At the same time, study orien­ta­tions are changing, and individual learner agency is becoming more and more empha­sised. Student groups are becoming more hetero­ge­neous and unbound, as studying is no longer limited to the classroom or some other physical context. Despite the growing distance between students, collab­o­rative groups and tasks are typically required (Myller & Vänskä 2018). The needs of pedagogical devel­opment and solutions represent ruptures in the tradi­tional pedagogical environment, but they also describe future-oriented approaches, where learners are in a part of a worldwide network (Downes 2012, 9). Moreover, different kinds of blended learning appli­ca­tions are utilised increas­ingly in higher education, and the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has sped up this devel­opment (Bashir A, Bashir S, Rana, Lambert & Vernallis 2021).

At Karelia UAS and CUAS, we have a common and global interest to promote our students’ compe­tence in empowered ageing. By educating future profes­sionals in applied geron­tology and Disability and Diversity studies, we have to consider different pedagogical choices to advance our students’ practical knowledge and skills, their ability to take part in multi­pro­fes­sional and inter­cul­tural groupwork, their readiness for applied research and devel­opment, as well as phenomenon-based learning, critical thinking and inter- and trans­dis­ci­plinary work. These compe­tencies will be required in the future. Inter­na­tional collab­o­ration brings in a learning space where online pedagogy, for example, can support us to pilot and monitor these kinds of exper­i­ments together to respond to ageing issues from a higher education perspective. Furthermore, students learn how to work together with diverse people in an inter­na­tional context, and they learn to organise themselves in group work and discus­sions. In addition, students’ digital compe­tencies are strengthened by finding online digital solutions for working together (e.g. by using MS Teams for synchronous group work or other digital tools and platforms for asynchronous work).

To achieve the compe­tence of empow­erment of older people among our students in inter­na­tional collab­o­ration, a partic­i­patory process of working together is needed. For example in Finland, Toikko and Rantanen (2009) state that partic­i­patory research-based devel­opment is a useful method of approach for applied science education. This approach is used to a signif­icant extent in Finnish higher education of applied sciences and especially in master’s theses. In the context of inter­na­tional collab­o­ration, partic­i­patory research-based devel­opment would also be suitable. In accor­dance with this approach, students bring in their individual experi­ences of their working fields or intern­ships, they develop research questions together and focus on specific questions which arise from their experiences.

In relation to classic and current liter­ature on partic­i­patory research (e.g. Arnstein 1971, Bergold & Thomas 2012, von Unger 2014), it becomes apparent that the level of partic­i­pation in particular is decisive for whether genuine partic­i­pation can succeed or not. The joint module has shown that the involvement of students from the beginning of the research process on the topic is central. After a brief overview of the content and reflection on existing knowledge on empow­erment and active ageing, it was partic­u­larly important that the students got involved right away and worked out research questions together in inter­na­tional and inter­dis­ci­plinary groups. In addition to the challenge of language differ­ences in an inter­na­tional team, it is especially the inter­dis­ci­pli­narity that can pose challenges for students ­– and teachers. Inter­dis­ci­pli­narity or, subse­quently, trans­dis­ci­pli­narity, especially in the context of empow­erment and active ageing, opens up oppor­tu­nities to think beyond one’s own disci­plinary bound­aries and to develop something new (Brauer et al. 2018).

The combi­nation of partic­i­patory and inter- as well as trans­dis­ci­plinary approaches in teaching requires some coordi­nation processes. Time prepa­ration and planning are partic­u­larly relevant on the part of teachers: on the one hand, there must be precise coordi­nation of content in advance, and on the other, for a joint module that integrates synchronous moments, it is also necessary to define time windows in which the students can actually meet virtually. The main focus must therefore not be purely on content-related aspects; admin­is­trative points must also be clarified. Furthermore, it is partic­u­larly important to clarify central concepts and terms from the start so that a common language can be spoken.


The interests of both Karelia UAS and CUAS lie in the field of ageing and related processes. The joint module was an oppor­tunity for students to deepen their under­standing of these issues and to discuss them in an inter­na­tional context. It is planned that a module of this kind will be carried out again in the future and that it will offer more oppor­tu­nities for systematic exchange, especially for the students.

With regard to our research questions (How can demographic devel­opment due to the ageing process be viewed from an inter­na­tional perspective? What practical recom­men­da­tions for empow­erment and active ageing can be derived from this and how can these be commu­ni­cated pedagog­i­cally?), it can be stated that the joint module has shown that ageing processes in the two partic­i­pating countries show socially, polit­i­cally and econom­i­cally similar struc­tures and that, from the students’ point of view, compar­ative analyses are possible here. This promotes, especially with regard to the second research question, inter­na­tional and inter­dis­ci­plinary exchange between students from different countries. Never­theless, in the pedagogical consid­er­a­tions for planning such a module, different national struc­tures must be taken into account, which are framework condi­tions for empow­erment and active ageing. At the same time, in the pedagogical imple­men­tation attention must first be paid to a clari­fi­cation and under­standing of main terms, as well as to inter­cul­tural and inter­dis­ci­plinary cooper­ation between teachers and students.

In order to strengthen the exchange between Karelia UAS and CUAS, it is generally planned that, in addition to joint project cooper­ation (e.g. EMMA, AliVe), joint proposals or exchanges within the framework of blended intensive programmes will be considered. This should strengthen physical and virtual cooper­ation and create oppor­tu­nities to work together on different facets of the topic of ageing. Partic­i­pation, inter­dis­ci­pli­narity and empow­erment are thus made possible on the most diverse levels, like students, teachers, projects and the discussion of organ­i­sa­tional questions.


Terhi Myller, Principal Lecturer, Karelia University of Applied Sciences

Christine Pichler, Professor of Sociology of Disability and Diversity Studies, Head of: IARA Department ISAC – Inter­gen­er­a­tional Solidarity, Activity and Civil Society, Carinthia University of Applied Sciences


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Photo: Moe Magners