America should become the first-ever “age-friendly country,” urged Dr. John Beard of the World Health Organization (WHO) recently during a conference in Chicago that shared fresh ways of looking at aging populations today. The U.S. could be instrumental in transforming a view of aging from an outdated model of dependence and disability – the way we once thought of our grandparents – to a model that emphasizes health, activity and economic value for America in the 21st century.
Why is this notion so earth shattering? Because it’s in stark contrast to the outdated notions of aging that continue to circulate.
The world has changed rapidly and it’s time to change the way we think about aging, Beard urges: “In an age-friendly world, you don’t just live longer. Those extra years are healthy ones that enable ongoing participation.” Younger people, as they watch this transformation, will then be able to alter their own life course at a time when living to age 100 may become routine.
At CPAC recently, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, heralded America’s great strengths, from the bioengineering and agriculture industries to the energy and technology sectors. All true. But the governor missed the opportunity to reflect on a new vision for the over-60 constituency, one built on activity, economic contribution, social engagement and living differently.
Bush said that in America, the strength of our younger demographic is relative to “all other industrialized nations… By 2050, China will have more old people than the United States has people.” He also said that as one of the “youngest” competitor nations, we maintain a huge advantage.
But he was presuming that as we age, we automatically become dependent and disabled and a drag on fiscal sustainability and economic growth. The explosion of our over-60 population makes it imperative that we re-think and re-imagine this demographic segment – and that we harness its power to drive our economic growth and competitive edge.
To put it another way – as the World Economic Forum’s report, “Global Population Aging: Peril or Promise” did – are you on the side of peril or promise?
The Chinese and others around the globe – including the cities of Chicago and New York City – are breaking new ground by using the age-friendly framework to stress strong fiscal management. Program leaders are de-linking negative health, fiscal and education components from the aging process itself. Vision loss doesn’t necessarily follow with aging, for example. And if we invest in health measures to combat diabetes and cardiovascular disease, among other illnesses, we can transform the aging process.
Dr. Beard’s challenge for America goes hand-in-hand with the idea of our cities’ myriad services – from health care to transportation, housing and business – being built by “silver entrepreneurship.” It’s a framework that connects growing older with new ideas of work and retirement.
During this century, when there will be more of us over the age of 60 than under the age 14, we’ll also need imaginative and creative public policy that enables an active and healthy aging. As our population ages, we can’t sit idly by – that much is for certain.