Japan’s Window on the Aging Crisis

Japan’s Window on the Aging Crisis

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Several weeks ago, before Japan and Libya dominated the headlines, twenty-one Asia-Pacific governments convened a first-ever Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) dialogue about aging, health and innovation. That two-week-long dialogue, which the U.S. hosted, is brought into sharp focus by a piece this past weekend in the Wall Street Journal, “Elderly Refugees Overwhelm Japan.” The scope of the human tragedy was reported by Daisuke Wakabayashi, Toko Sekiguchi and Eric Bellman: “The aging of Japan’s population [is] proving to be one of the signature challenges facing the relief effort in the wake of last week’s killer quake and tsunami … More than 20 percent of Japan’s population [is] over 65, and more than 30 percent in Japan’s remote areas [is also over 65].”

It is not surprising that APEC member economies put aging populations on their agenda, along with more traditional global issues such as reducing trade and investment barriers, advancing strong intellectual property rights, and addressing HIV and AIDs. There is greater longevity and continued low fertility in many countries, including Korea, Taiwan, China, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.; there’s also greater risk for certain types of crises as the proportion of those over and under 65 profoundly shifts. The APEC dialogue presciently took up the notions of future social and economic collapse, and the leadership created a path to begin preparing for a new time in history, when the old will outnumber the young by significant margins. Goals include facilitating biopharmaceutical innovation and applying new care models in the home and in institutional settings.

Even APEC representatives from “younger” countries such as Viet Nam and Indonesia recognized the enormity of a new approach to population aging.

Through the lens of the crisis in Japan, we have a rare window into the dramatic tragedies of an “at- risk population.” No innovation can ensure healthy and active aging for all. But we can reform our institutional arrangements for aging populations in a positive and fiscally smart way. A nice side effect will be happier and more productive lives, with fewer older people dependent on others – whether they’re caught up in an extraordinary crisis on the scale of the one in Japan, or just going about their normal, everyday, peaceful lives.

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Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.