Australia’s Long View of the Aging Dilemma

Australia’s Long View of the Aging Dilemma

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As Americans continue the wrangling over deficits and budgets, and as the Europeans add another country to the seemingly endless list of fiscal failures, Australians are taking the long view on the common driver of fiscal messes: They’re preparing for a tsunami of older citizens.  If only the other developed countries were as progressive. The Australians recognize that economic success in the coming decades will hinge on how they deal with aging populations that shortly will comprise a stunning one quarter of their overall population.

It’s also noteworthy that it is precisely in the economic and fiscal context of a “Productivity Commission” that the Australian government has reported on the viability of their “aged care system.” The report focuses on “the well being of older Australians — promoting their independence, giving them choice and retaining their community engagement.” Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced her support.

The Productivity Commission’s report offers insights into care of the aging. It says that the next generation of seniors wants more choices and greater flexibility in the type of care they receive. With longer lives, this conclusion makes sense. Boomers — and their peers around the world — are not aging like their parents, and the traditional model of “aged care” and “retirement homes” will need to be transformed to allow for unhindered access to participation in social and economic life.

Yet, the commission misses the opportunity to consider that better “care” alone simply would still not be fiscally sustainable. As their over-65 population doubles, there will be zero growth in the demographic segment of those who are “traditional workforce age.”

No matter how much better, more efficient and compassionate the care becomes, the older model that presumes dependence over 65 is no longer viable. We must shift the paradigm to enable some reasonable percentage of those in the traditional retired cohort to remain economically active. What we need is a new kind of “aged care system” that focuses on finding innovative ways to keep at least a proportion of those with chronic diseases participating in community life outside of the traditional care regimes.

Australians are quite focused on their aging population, with a minister of aging, a government report that raises the topic to the level of national interest, and a prime minister attending to and leading on the issue, to the tune of: “We need to have a reform conversation in an open way.”  With America’s aging population entitlements bankrupting the country, so do we.

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.