Older and better: We can make it happen
It’s hard to talk about the “upside” of aging without acknowledging, or getting mired in, the challenges of aging — from the annoyance of memory lapses and achy joints to workplace discrimination and the crushing impact of Alzheimer’s.
In fact, experts at The Upside of Aging panel are finding that those very challenges present vast opportunity in an aging world whose older population is more vital, engaged, and expansive than ever before.
“We’ve worked hard and invested in extending lives, and succeeded. Now we mostly wring our hands about this enormous proposition when it should be a win-win,” Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Encore.org, told the audience at the Milken Institute Global Conference. With the nation on track to see its largest-ever group of seniors as the 78-million-strong baby boom generation matures, Freedman said our youth-centered culture ignores an extraordinary bonus “hidden in plain sight” — the potential contributions of older people in work, civic activity, and culture.
“People are living longer, and we can make virtue out of necessity, tapping the extreme talent they possess. And in fact it’s already happening.” He cited the growing number of people undertaking “encore careers” that are focused on social good.
To ensure that older people’s lives are meaningful, productive, and secure, cities are key, said Henry Cisneros, who was once the secretary of Housing and Urban Development and mayor of San Antonio. With most of that population concentrated in urban areas, some cities are taking steps in that direction, but much more needs to be done, he said. To meet the “immense” challenge, he called for a suite of interrelated solutions: infrastructure and transportation, social programs, nutrition centers, policing and safety measures tailored to meet the needs of seniors.
As well, society must learn to value what older people can contribute to their communities and the world, Cisneros said. “Society needs to change its own culture and values” and reward the “encore” contributions as it does the contributions of the young.
Panelists said that fighting dementia and Alzheimer’s must be a national priority. Freda Lewis-Hall, executive vice president of Pfizer, Inc., noted other illnesses also increase with age, and that even while medical advances have extended lives, a “knowledge gap” remains about what people can do to secure their own health and wellness. “People don’t understand lifestyle changes. We have the opportunity to close that gap.”
One of the most significant breakthroughs comes in the information that people can obtain about their disease risks through genomics, said Pinchas Cohen, dean of the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology. Armed with that information, they can take preventive steps to minimize decline in their later years.
Cohen also challenged statistics that predict skyrocketing incidence of dementia in the coming years. These predictions assume “we’re all going to do the same terrible things” into the future, he said, without awareness and focus on diet, exercise, weight loss and other lifestyle choices that can improve health and make it last.
AARP, the nation’s most prominent lobby for the concerns of people over 50, is focusing on the theme of Life Reimagined because the organization’s constituency is “dramatically changing,” with older people seeking new possibilities of all kinds, said A. Barry Rand, the CEO of AARP.
Thinking of retirement as a time of decline, inactivity and problems is yesterday’s story, he added. People are interested in new creativity, compassion and choices, he said. “Traditional retirement is no longer the desired destination.”
Amid these new possibilities, Rand continued, people need to know their financial and health futures are secure, and government must ensure a strong future for Social Security and Medicare.