At the March 15 National Forum on Global Aging, Frank Whittington, associate dean of academic affairs at George Mason University, kicked off the half-day program by remarking on America’s penchant for superiority: “We have a serious tendency to believe that what we do is right, that we are Number One, and that the rest of the world needs to learn from us. Instead, we should search the globe for better models.”
The National Forum was inspired by the Spring 2013 issue of Generations (guest edited by Whittington and his colleague, Suzanne Kunkel), “Our World Growing Older: A Look at Global Aging,” and held during the 2013 Aging in America Conference. Underwritten by a grant from MetLife Foundation, the Forum presented numerous international models for solving America’s aging population challenges, and expert panelists offered varying perspectives on a fundamental question: Why should we care about global aging?
A Failure to Adapt
John Beard, director of the World Health Organization’s Department of Ageing and Life Course, gave a succinct answer stating that aging is global, predictable, complex and most decidedly not a problem. “Tell me one other social trend that’s like [global aging] where we can anticipate in advance what will happen, and do something today?”
The artificial “age of retirement” was created in the nineteenth century, Beard said, so the problem is about the failure of our society to adapt. Right now we are in a saddle on the graph of aging demographics, where there are more people of working age than any other—a scenario Beard sees as a window of opportunity in which to be productive “if we would just rethink the whole proposition of aging itself.”
The Benefits of Foresight
Demographer Peter Uhlenberg, sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offered current models from other countries for study, such as from Sweden, where their population now is where ours will be in 2050. Sweden has acted to stave off impending challenges, adjusting their generous pension system (which had the effect of raising retirement age) and setting it on sound financial footing for the future. They put restrictions on homecare financing, resulting in 80 percent of Swedish families providing care. They also brought more people into their labor force from overseas to combat workforce shortages.
Uhlenberg reinforced Beard’s thought, stating that we continue to frame our discussions of aging poorly—emphasizing burden, not opportunity. “Older people make great contributions….There’s a tremendous possibility to change our understanding of what later life is, and for thinking of our expanding older population as a resource.”
Human Suffering Is Global
Susan Aziz, special advisor to the International Federation on Ageing, spoke on international policy initiatives to advance health and well-being into old age, encouraging the audience to foster the protection of human rights, by waking up to realities overseas.
Aziz created an inspiring, if sobering, moment by quoting from interviews with 1,300 older persons from 36 countries, a narrative published by the United Nations Population Fund and HelpAge International. She reported one elder from Kyrgyzstan as saying, “We go to the supermarkets as if we are going to a museum; there is everything we need, but we cannot afford anything.” And another person from Bosnia simply stated: “We don’t even know what our rights are.”
James Sykes, senior advisor for aging policy in Population Health Sciences, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine & Public Health, acknowledged the power of these personal statements: “If we’re going to talk about change, we’re really talking about [motivating] individuals [to] become passionate about something and foster it. The way to most clearly affect change is through personal examples.”
Wrapping up the discussion, Suzanne Kunkel, director of Miami University’s Scripps Gerontology Center, posed tough questions about countries’ roles in caring for their growing cohorts of elders: “Who should be responsible, who is responsible, what’s the role of government?” In exploring the answers, she said, “Our study should be driven by a purpose that will lead to a shared level of understanding.”
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the May/June 2013 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.
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