News / Health

UN Urges Countries to Plan for Aging Populations

Elderly women rinse their mouths with holy water at a shrine in Tokyo, Japan on Sept. 29, 2012.
Elderly women rinse their mouths with holy water at a shrine in Tokyo, Japan on Sept. 29, 2012.
Peter Fednysky
It’s a fact of life that older people slow down, so it’s no surprise, for example, that they take longer to cross a street.  How should communities accommodate the world’s rapidly aging population?  A new United Nations report on aging urges countries to answer that question, because soon every fifth person in the world will be over 60. 

Consider Japan, where 30 percent of Japanese are elderly -- the world’s oldest population.  By mid-century, according to the U.N. report, 64 countries will reach that mark.

The head of the U.N.’s Population and Development Branch, Jose Miguel Guzman, hails increased longevity as one of humanity’s greatest achievements.  The author of the aging report attributes longer life spans to improved nutrition, sanitation, medical advances, better health care, education and economic well-being.  But longevity, Guzman told journalists, also poses challenges.

“Steep population aging also means an increased demand for income security, health and long-term care, which creates huge socio-economic challenges that will need to be addressed with strong political and appropriate social policies," he said.

The report says populations are aging in all regions of the world.  The most rapid age increases are in developing countries, where people now live on average to 68 years and are expected to live till 74 by 2050. Life expectancy is 78 in developed countries, where today’s newborns can expect to live until 83.  

Richard Blewett, chief executive officer of HelpAge International, a publication partner of the U.N. report, said older people in many countries are not seen as economic assets.

“Governments are not really living up to the expectations of their senior citizens and they could do a better job," he said. "What’s needed there is long-term vision and strong political will and a clear sense of priorities.”

Blewett says 67 percent of the older people polled for the report said their greatest challenge was employment discrimination.  But he notes some countries are beginning to see the advantages of the elderly; South Africa offers a social pension program and Brazil has passed human rights legislation on behalf of its older people.  In China, rural grandparents increasingly care for grandchildren as their parents move to cities for employment.  

The former head of the U.S. Census Bureau, Martha Farnsworth Riche, cited an example in Australia, where a community consulted with its retirees about local transportation needs.

“One very simple thing that came up, because they had that representation, that people needed more time, pedestrians needed more time to cross the street," said Riche. "Now there was [a suggestion to] run the street light with longer green light time.”

More significant measures include reforming social security systems in developed countries to reflect an aging population, and creating social safety nets in developing nations where traditional family support systems are eroding. 

The report says the most cost-effective and humane thing a society can do for its elderly citizens is to invest in their health so they can remain active.

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