In William Shakespeare’s day, the average lifespan was such that it was acceptable for doomed protagonist Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” to be a 13-year-old girl. She was, after all, entering the prime of her life. But things have changed since the late 1500’s. Now people live much longer. Yet a longer life expectancy brings forth a host of complex issues. For example, by 2050, it is estimated that about 21% of the population will be aged 65 and older. This dramatic shift in demographics means it’s time to start reimagining aging and envisions new ways of living and the value of elderly in society.
As life expectancy increases, a greater older population demands different things from society in general. Work, healthcare, retirement, and urban design must all change.
It’s time to re-evaluate the value of the elderly in society – to better serve them, and better serve society as a whole.
A Ticking Time Bomb
Policy makers and institutions see the aging demographic as a time bomb that needs to be diffused. Why is this demographic shift viewed in such an ominous light?
Dr. Jack Rowe, professor of Health Policy and Management at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, offers valuable insight. Since 1950, the average global life expectancy has increased from 48 years to 66 years. As a considerable number of people are able to age successfully, Dr. Rowe posits that an appropriate amount of responsibility for care should shift from the individual to society.
Regrettably, the core institutions of our society – education, work, retirement, healthcare, infrastructure and urban design – were not planned to support the age distribution of the future society. With the society’s inability to develop approaches that will address the needs of an aging population, this demographic shift is indeed akin to watching a time bomb tick away.
Aging as a Holistic Experience
Reimagining aging and seeing how it is reshaping our societies requires a deeper understanding of aging. One has to remember that aging is a biological, psychological and cultural experience.
In biology, attempts to explain aging or senescence has been clustered into two main theories.
The first theory is called the programmed theory. This states that our body follows an internal biological clock since childhood. As we age, certain internal functions that have an influence on aging are either switched on or off.
The second theory is called the error or damage theory, and it approaches aging as being a result of external and environmental forces that gradually damage the body’s cells and organs.
On the other hand, the psychology of aging is often centered on mental acuity and capacity. As humans age, they become more susceptible to a number of mental health issues such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. These mental health issues can impact a senior’s independence and ability to care for themselves. However, with advancements in medicine, the occurrence of these age-related diseases are often postponed. This means more and more elders are able to maximize a healthy lifespan.
Lastly, the cultural experience of aging varies from one group to another. The process of aging is welcomed and embraced in cultures where the value of elders in society is great. However, in cultures with a high regard for work, independence and self-reliance, aging may be viewed as a challenging phase. In highly-developed regions, such as the US and Europe, retirement homes for elders are common.
The Urgent Call for Reshaping our Views of Aging and the Value of Elderly in Society
Reimagining aging requires an evaluation of our core institutions. In order to prepare for the new age distribution, we have to look at which processes are not working anymore.
- The healthcare system is already feeling the impact of an aging population. With more than 50 million seniors (65 years and older) in the US, 40% of the country’s hospital customer base are on Medicare. Reducing healthcare costs, developing new models for healthcare delivery, and expanding the eldercare workforce are just some of the ways the field can prepare for this demographic shift.
- Infrastructure and urban planning need to be reassessed. Based on the 2017 Census Bureau estimates, the majority of the US population lives outside cities and around low-density and emerging suburban areas. However, suburban areas were designed for young families with access to cars, so the elderly may end up being stranded in the suburbs. Reimagining aging means creating areas where everyone has access to the services necessary to lead fulfilling and satisfying lives.
- Financial and economic concerns are more distinct during retirement age. With a decreased income and increasing medical and healthcare expenses, financial instability at retirement sits as one of the top concerns of 8 out of 10 Americans. The average life expectancy was just 62 when the Social Security system was enacted in 1935. With a longer life expectancy for its beneficiaries, the Social Security Board of Trustees projected that the program’s resources will be depleted by 2035. Working beyond the age of 65 may just become the norm, and businesses and industries must be prepared to accommodate a much older workforce.
What a Difference a Century Makes
Who we are now, demographically-speaking is very different from who we were a century ago.
We need to reassess our policies, institutions, and infrastructures to face the challenges of this demographic shift. Likewise, how we structure our life stages may also need to be revisited.
With long years ahead of us after retirement, it is imperative for us to begin reimagining aging.