"Living is aging, nothing more" - Simone de Beauvoir
Despite advances in science and medicine, old age is an inescapable part of life for everyone. An ageing population worldwide has triggered a sharper focus on the health and well-being of older people to prevent age from becoming a stigma or a cause for social isolation.
Japan, with more than 65,000 centenarians in 2017, is one of the first countries to have taken specific measures to help seniors on a daily basis with sports clubs and customized robots to help them in their daily lives, according to the Ministry of Health . Senior citizens living in the countries of Northern Europe have the best living conditions (according to a ranking of Natixis Global Asset Management). They have resources and can contribute to society in a positive way. In Denmark, older people are involved in finding solutions to problems that concern them, for example, sitting on their local council.
However, despite the launch of the UN International Day of Older Persons on October 1 more than 25 years, not enough is being done to tackle this aging demographic, which we will all one day be part of.
The elderly represent the world’s fastest growing population category, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Their numbers are expected to double from 900 million in 2015 to more than two billion by 2050. The number of people over 80, meanwhile, is growing even faster; their numbers are projected to triple from 125 million in 2015 to 425 million in 2050. While this global phenomenon began in high-income countries the rising age of populations is even faster today in low- and middle-income countries such as Chile, Russia, China, Iran and Africa.
The number of older people in low- and middle -income regions rose from 376 million in 2000 to 602 million in 2015, an increase of 60%, and is expected to increase by 71% between 2015 and 2030. These countries are dealing with their aging populations on a day to day basis without any time to properly prepare and invest for the future in areas such as in education, infrastructure, urban planning and health. This "epidemiological transition" represents a new challenge for public health.
"By 2050, 2 billion people - or almost one in four - will be over 60 years old” according to the WHO.
As people get older, they are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, cancer, accidents or cerebrovascular disease. They are also more vulnerable to depression, as many face loneliness and poverty; exclusion and stigma represent one of the leading causes of health difficulties for the elderly.
As economic pressures intensify, older people can be increasingly viewed as a burden in some countries. While it was common at one time for several generations of the same family to live under the same roof, many families now migrate to the city and leave their elders behind in retirement homes or in hospices. The lack of intellectual and physical activity accelerates the aging process, something that is especially true as they begin to lose their autonomy1.
The biggest challenge, however, lies in developing countries. More than 90% of the population in sub-Saharan countries and South Asia still live on less than US$2 a day. It appears that the overall average cost of aging-related medical care is expected to increase by 41% between 2000 and 2050, of which 36% is in developing countries and 48% in developed countries. "A real challenge for health systems," says Germany's Minister of Family and Senior Citizens.
Older people from disadvantaged backgrounds living in poor countries will likely be in worse health and have the greatest needs. They are already particularly vulnerable to chronic diseases and tend to experience them earlier on in life and so suffer longer - often with preventable complications - and die earlier than people from high-income countries. Women are also more vulnerable than men because they do not benefit from the same resources or rights as men (such as access to education).
The WHO report2 emphasizes that governments therefore need to implement policies that enable seniors to continue playing an active role in society while avoiding exacerbating inequalities that lead to health problems later in life. The strategic objectives for the coming years are to promote healthy aging in all countries, adapt health systems to the needs of older people, develop long-term care systems and create a supportive environment for the elderly.
"Building systems that meet the needs of older people will be key to promoting healthy aging in all countries," says WHO in its global plan of action.
Old age is not only a challenge because it is something that must be supported financially. It is also an opportunity to change the way of seeing the world, to change society where each generation has its place and can contribute to the society in which they integrate.
China Does the Sums on Aging3
The ‘what’ is always easier to define that the ‘how’, but China has already implemented concrete projects to look after its 132 million elderly people, the highest concentration of older people of any country. China’s elderly make up 20% of the world's population over the age of 60. Its government has enacted legislation to protect the rights and interests of older people and the 10th Five-Year Plan for the Development of Aging-Related Initiatives (2001-2005) aims to gradually establish a social security system for older people.
Recognizing that an aging population will affect the country’s future economic and social development, China has put in place 17,000 senior universities, hosting more than 1.5 million seniors citizens of which more than 30 million play sports regularly. Experience has shown that China's policies are adapted to the national environment, protect the rights and interests of hundreds of millions of older people, improve their standard of living and enrich their lives, spiritually and culturally.