Category Archives: Aging Around the World

Wine Around the World 2016: South Africa

This series of blog posts by author Patti Digh will focus on issues of aging in the countries whose wines we will taste at our Wine Around the World event on October 6, 2016. There are a limited number of tickets left. Don’t miss this unforgettable event! Purchase online or stop by our office at 105 King Creek Blvd, Hendersonville, NC.

SOUTH AFRICA’S ELDERLY POPULATION TO DOUBLE BY 2050

waw-southafrica

by Patti Digh

South Africa’s elderly population is projected to double by 2050, according to a report released recently. Presently, the number of South Africans 60 years or older is around 4.209 million people. In 2050, this figure will rise to 10.06 million people. In the whole of the African continent, by 2050, the number of people over 60 will increase from just under 50 million to just under 200 million.

More than half of elderly people in South Africa live in extended households, but that’s changing with an upward trend in the prevalence of elderly single-member households (a huge increase from 16.3% in 1996 to 26.7% in 2011) and urbanization.

In fact, South Africa has a number of unique circumstances that affect the structure and situation of families. They include its history of apartheid, and particularly the migrant labor system. Poverty also greatly affects family life, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic has profoundly affected the health and well-being of family members, consequently placing an added burden on children and the elderly.

In South Africa in 2008, there were 859,000 “double orphans” (children both of whose parents have died), 2,468,000 paternal orphans, and 624,000 maternal orphans. A total of 3.95 million children had lost one or both parents by 2008, an increase of about a third since 2002. The number of double orphans increased by 144%. Although the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa has stabilised, and the infection rate is now starting to decline, the number of orphans will continue to grow or at least remain high for years, reflecting a time lag between HIV infection and death.

What does this have to do with aging? The contribution of the elderly is especially important in countries with a high HIV/AIDS prevalence, such as South Africa, where many older people head what are called skip-generation households because the middle generation has died or become very sick from HIV/AIDS. Around 30 percent of older women in Sub-Saharan Africa head skip-generation households, according to the WHO. In some countries, the figures are even higher. In African countries outside South Africa, this is also true: more than four out of ten orphans are cared for by their grandmothers in Tanzania, and in Zimbabwe it is around six in ten.

In rural KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, the country in the region with both the highest proportion of old people and one of the severest AIDS epidemics. almost one in three older people are either now caring for sick adults living in the household or are raising grandchildren whose own parents are either dead or away in the cities on a long-term basis, seeking work.

One project in KwaZulu-Natal works with over 25,000 older people who are nursing their infected children and raise their grandchildren. Through information and training they learn about infection risks and the best care. They are enabled to help other affected people and overcome their own isolation. The elderly people are also supported materially: They receive sufficient food supplies, clothing and items that they need to take care of their sick relatives. The grandchildren get books, school uniforms, and other items the need for their education.

Another project supports these silent heroes: “Kwa Wazee” grants pensions to 1,000 grandmothers with 600 grandchildren. The project also advocates the formation of discussion groups that enable old people to help one another psychosocially and financially. The pensions increase the quality of life for elderly women and their grandchildren immensely, enabling them to buy food, clothes and other needed items. The nutritional situation stabilizes, the children can go to school again, and the grandmothers develop a greater feeling of self-esteem. The project also contributes to a national debate about improved old age security.

 

Wine Around the World 2016: Slovenia

This series of blog posts by author Patti Digh will focus on issues of aging in the countries whose wines we will taste at our Wine Around the World event on October 6, 2016. There are a limited number of tickets left. Don’t miss this unforgettable event! Purchase online or stop by our office at 105 King Creek Blvd, Hendersonville, NC.

SLOVENIA’S RAPIDLY AGING POPULATION IS DRIVING INTERGENERATIONAL INNOVATION

waw-slovenia

by Patti Digh

In Slovenia, aging-related expenses as a share of GDP will increase from 24.7% in 2013 to 31.5% in 2060. Out of 100 working age people in Slovenia, 27 were over 65 at the start of 2013, a number that will double to 58 in 2060, according to a recent report. The proportion of the population over 85 is also projected to surge from 2% at the moment to 7% in 2060.

In addition to the systemic reforms obviously needed to finance this rapidly aging population, Slovenia is looking at innovative ways to unite old and young people, using institutions familiar with the needs and abilities of both groups. They aim to tackle the stereotypes young and old people tend to have about each other.

The “Fruits of Society” house is the first example of an intergenerational centre in Slovenia, bringing together young and old in the Pomurje region. The project’s aim is to ensure additional help for the elderly by young people and, at the same time, help youth acquire new knowledge. Activities mainly revolve around socializing, joint projects, and promotion of a healthy lifestyle and voluntary work. The idea is to create a forum where ideas can be exchanged on how to deepen and extend intergenerational voluntary cooperation to other activities.

Traditionally, the elderly in Slovenia have been taken care of by their family members. Those who did not have any relatives were partially taken care of by a local community. However, a recent Slovenian study showed that three quarters of people would choose to go to a nursing home and less than one fifth (17%) would choose to live with one of their children because they don’t want to be a burden. Even so, the willingness of family to care for their elders is very high. Almost two-fifths of Slovenes see the solution as family care and co-living with disabled and elderly family members. Half of the respondents said that for them personally, caring for old people is one of the main tasks of the family. The biggest problem is not the willingness to care but rather the ability to care. Family care is less available due to the lack of support services rather than unwillingness to care.

The first need they have is common to all Slovenian family caregivers – the need for “respite care services” (47.1%) that are very scarce (almost nonexistent) in Slovenia. Two fifths of family caregivers wish to have “more frequent visits from a district nurse” and “larger accessibility of home help services.” The fourth and fifth most expressed things they miss are the “support from their relatives” and “the life they lived before taking over the caring responsibilities.” The needs of family carers reflect the real situation regarding family care of older people in Slovenia.

Currently there are only a few services intended for family caregivers and they are not provided on a national level. For example, there is no place that provides information, practical training in caregiving, and other support to family caregivers on the national level. Family caregivers urgently need broader community support and professional assistance in the form of home care and support, institutional day care, respite care services, needs assessment, counseling and advice, self-support groups, practical training in caring and protecting their own physical and mental health, weekend breaks, integrated planning of care for elderly and families, and so on.

Through one national program, family members are trained via short courses for better understanding and communicating with older family members, or about quality aging after retirement, in which the elderly are taught how to recognize and accept old age, practice active aging, and have quality relations with the younger generations.

Family members who have an elder in an institution learn to communicate well during their visits and to collaborate well with the residential care provider. Relatives’ clubs are being established inside nursing homes. The underlying principle is that one hour weekly of quality personal contact with an old person is an excellent opportunity for personal growth, and a good way to learn about intergenerational communication and prepare for one’s own old age.

Wine Around the World 2016: Portugal

This series of blog posts by author Patti Digh will focus on issues of aging in the countries whose wines we will taste at our Wine Around the World event on October 6, 2016. There are a limited number of tickets left. Don’t miss this unforgettable event! Purchase online or stop by our office at 105 King Creek Blvd, Hendersonville, NC.

PORTUGAL’S PERFECT STORM

waw-portugal

by Patti Digh

Between 1960 and 2012, the young population of Portugal greatly decreased and the number of elderly citizens greatly increased, changing significantly the population dynamics in that European nation. Why? Because of sharp fertility rate declines (they have the lowest fertility rate in Europe), the increase of life expectancy, and increased emigration in recent years, caused by unemployment and the economic crisis there. Over one-third of people under 25 in Portugal are unemployed and cannot find jobs in their own country, so they are leaving and Portugal is fast-becoming a nation of one-child families.

Under the current poor economic conditions in Portugal, the Portuguese population is going to continue to decrease, and the aging of the population that remains will likely result in the unsustainability of the country. For the elderly living in small families without children or a spouse, greater support from the community and local health services will be required, a situation that becomes even more acute in periods of economic depression. It is a perfect storm.

As reported in The Guardian, the recent fall in births across Portugal – to 89,841 babies in 2012, a 14% drop since 2008 and a 56% drop since 1960 – has been so acute that the government is closing a number of maternity wards nationwide. In an increasingly childless country, 239 schools are closing this year and sales of everything from diapers to children’s shampoos are plummeting. At the same time, in the fast-greying interior, petrol stations and motels are being converted into nursing homes.

Portugal is at the forefront of Europe’s latest baby bust, facing greatly increased social costs in some of the world’s most rapidly aging societies. By 2030 the retired population in Portugal will surge by 27.4%, with those older than 65 then predicted to make up nearly one in every four residents. With fewer and fewer future workers and taxpayers being born, the Portuguese are confronting what could be a real financial difficulty in providing for their aging population.

Experts predict that the population loss ahead for Portugal could be beyond even the worst-case predictions of nearly 1 million fewer inhabitants – or almost 10% of the current population of 10.56 million – by 2030. It has many bemoaning the “disappearance” of a nation, leaving them to ask: Who will be left to support a dying country of old men and women?

“This is one of the biggest problems we face as a nation,” said Jose Tavares, political economics professor at the Nova School of Business and Economics in Lisbon. “If we don’t find a way to fix this, we will be facing a disaster.”

The burdens ahead are also clear in communities across Portugal, where elder care is the largest single public expenditure. Recent national cuts have meant a reduction in the number of seniors towns are able to aid in their main adult day-care facilities.

To breathe new life into some areas, officials have sought to lure young people back, offering cash subsidies for new homebuyers in an attempt to stem years of losses of working-age residents to inland cities and more prosperous countries. Some towns are providing preschool for next to nothing, with children being minded in nursing homes, which thrills the residents. One clothing maker in central Portugal has started paying its workers a bonus for having babies, and towns are following suit.

Wine Around the World 2016: Chile

This series of blog posts by author Patti Digh will focus on issues of aging in the countries whose wines we will taste at our Wine Around the World event on October 6, 2016. There are a limited number of tickets left. Don’t miss this unforgettable event! Purchase online or stop by our office at 105 King Creek Blvd, Hendersonville, NC.

Aging isn’t just a biological process; it is also a cultural one. Frequently the average life expectancy bears on what age counts as “old.” For example, in the United States, where the average life expectancy is over 78 years, people are not considered “old” until they are in their sixties or seventies. However, in Chad the average life expectancy is less than 49 years. People in their thirties or forties are therefore already middle­ aged or “old.”

Over the next two weeks, leading up to our Wine Around the World event at The Cedars, let’s grab our passports and go on this amazing journey into aging in many cultures.

CHILE’S RAPID DEVELOPMENT AND ITS IMPACT ON AGINGchile

by Patti Digh

Chile is a developing country with a rapidly expanding economy. In fact, it is expected to become a “developed country” within 10 years, one of the first in Latin America to obtain that designation. This rapid economic growth has brought significant changes in social organization. For example, an increasing number of older adults are now living alone versus in an extended family, and Chile has one of the largest proportions of older adults in Latin America.

In fact, the number of elderly in Latin America will triple as a share of the population by 2050. By 2050, there will be one Latin American elder for every child. The result will be a dramatic slowdown in population growth and an equally dramatic aging of the population. Latin America’s median age will climb by 14 years, from 26 to 40.

This coming age wave poses two fundamental challenges for Latin America. The first is to create national retirement systems capable of providing an adequate level of support for the old without imposing a crushing burden on the young. The second is to boost living standards while populations are still young and growing. While the United States, Europe, and Japan all became affluent societies before they became aging societies, Latin America may grow old before it grows rich.

In particular, Chile is in what is referred to as an advanced demographic transition stage. The population over 60 years of age represents 13% of the total population. It’s anticipated that the aging population in Chile will continue to increase to represent 20.8% of the population by 2044. Thus, in the near future, Chile will experience “super-aging.”

And because of the gender gap in life expectancy in Chile, more women will be living alone, a new phenomenon in Chile, and may experience increasing isolation. Additionally, more women may face reduced economic status in their later years as most did not participate in the labor force and were dependent upon their husband’s salaries and pensions.

It’s important to note that life expectancy in Chile also varies by geographic location and is up to 10 years less among certain indigenous populations there (e.g., Aymara), attesting to pockets of underdevelopment and poverty particularly among Indigenous populations and in rural areas.

To promote healthy aging, the government of Chile has been providing a nutritional supplement to older adults since 1998, distributing micronutrient fortified foods to adults 70 years or over who are registered for the program through their Primary Health Centers.

In 2002, a national effort to focus on health issues related to aging was initiated in Chile, focused on improving living conditions and health programs specific to the needs of older adults, developing and implementing elder abuse laws, and enhancing access to public spaces so that older adults can participate in tourism or use public transportation at reduced rates. The importance of specialized health care for the elderly such as comprehensive geriatric assessments is becoming an increasing focus of attention, as the prevalence of risk of falls and chronic diseases increases.

Access to participation in meaningful activities can be challenging for older adults in Chile. In Santiago, the city is divided into provinces with each responsible for organizing events for older adults. Provinces with more resources offer enhanced activities including travel opportunities, free exercise facilities, and opportunities for social engagement. A rising concern, however, is the lack of meaningful opportunities to remain socially and economically integrated as one enters old age in Chile. Not surprisingly, there has been a rise of mental health issues and in particular, depression. In Chile, it has been reported that clinical depression in older adults has reached 47%, which is a much higher percentage compared to estimate of 16% and 19% for adolescents and young adults.

To answer these needs, Chile has developed “The Integral Policy for Positive Aging” with three general objectives: protect the functional health of older people, improve their integration into the different areas of society, and increase their levels of subjective well-being.

Aging Around the World: Germany

by Patti Digh, Council on Aging for Henderson County Board Member

Are Nursing Homes Inevitable?

In most of the developed world, birth rates have been falling. Population decline results in economic and social strains and can even threaten national security. Germany is a particularly severe example of this trend. Germany has had an extremely low birth rate for decades. Its resident population is in absolute decline; its family policies have failed to restore birth rates to a replacement level. Now what?

Aging in Place in Germany

WAW-germany-blogpostApproximately every fourth person in Germany is over 60 years old. Because of low birth rates and increasing life expectancy, German society has the third ­largest proportion of elderly people worldwide after Japan and Italy.

The vast majority of elderly people in Germany lead independent lives, are socially active, in contact with their children and relatives, and for the most part are in a position to determine their own lives and actively decide how to make use of their time.

Financially speaking the elder generation is for the most part taken care of: The 1957 pension reform gradually gave pensioners a full share in the nation’s wealth. Poverty in old age has not been done away with entirely, but the risk of being poor in old age is lower than that of other age groups.

A Federal project seeks to strengthen and secure cross-generational ties. Almost every district and each municipality in Germany now boasts a multi­generational house. The 500 subsidized buildings, to which 15,000 people are committed nationwide, form a point of contact, network and hub for family advice, health support, crisis intervention and care planning.

People of all ages live in these buildings together.

“We haven’t built a nursing home in 10 years and we don’t plan on building any,” says Alexander Künzel, chief executive of the Bremer Heimstiftung, a foundation providing long­term care services. Instead, the foundation offers multigenerational residential buildings where seniors can rent one of 85 apartments with round-­the-­clock assistance and a nursery school next door.

This can be summarized in just a few words: As part of a growing trend in Germany, what really matters is that elderly citizens stay out of institutionalized care.

This is a strongly held belief at the Council on Aging for Henderson County. With the help of so many other agencies in our community, we provide and coordinate services to help our clients live independently for as long as possible.

Aging Around the World: Italy

by Patti Digh, Council on Aging for Henderson County Board Member

In this series, we are exploring the norms around aging in each of the countries that will be represented at our Wine Around the World event on October 22, 2015. There are only a handful of tickets left, but they’re going fast. Tickets can be purchased at our office or online here: coa.eventbrite.

GLOBAL ELDERS

“Using their collective experience, their moral courage and their ability to rise above the parochial concerns of nation, race and creed, they can help make our planet a more peaceful, healthy and equitable place to live. Let us call them Global Elders, not because of their age, but because of their individual and collective wisdom. We call this the spirit of Ubuntu – that profound African sense that we are human only through the humanity of other human beings.”
– Nelson Mandela, Founder, The Elders

What if we didn’t have a “needs­-based” perspective of aging, but a “resource­-based” view of it instead? What if society more often celebrated the achievements of the elderly and applauded them for their unique accomplishments than they decried the “costs” of an aging population? At 99, Miczyslaw Horszowski, a classical pianist, recorded a new album; at 91, Hilda Crooks climbed Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the United States; and at 91, Lucille Borgen won the National Water Ski title. These elderly may be labeled as “over achievers;” however, they are examples of Active Aging – people who are successful, positive, and experiencing a high quality of life in their aging years. Aging is not a disease, or a problem; rather, it is an inevitability, and a privilege, given how many around us die far too young.

ACTIVE AGING IN ITALY

WAW-Italy-blogpostThe major backbones supporting activity in the elderly must be reinforced by the culture of that society, and the policies and the political support as witnessed in societies with a large aging population, such as Italy. Italy’s elderly population continues to be productive and active as its country’s policies and environmental infrastructure fosters and “supports at the individual level the variability, plasticity, and modifiability of the elderly.”

This approach is obviously not taken in many other Western nations and, interestingly, in Italy “Active Aging” is considered to start in childhood, encompassing everyone in society. For the Italians, addressed when a person gets to be sixty­-four, but must be considered when they are in their twenties and thirties, since their activities at that point will likely mirror their involvement in those same activities when they are in their sixties. Successful aging in Italy is a multidisciplinary, multigenerational collaboration.

Italy has one of the longest life expectancy rates in the world, about 84.5 years, with 20.8% of its population, aged 65 and over. It is vital, then, that this country do what it can to keep the elderly healthy and contributing to society.

The World Health Organization Aging and Life Course Programme has defined “Active Aging” as “the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age.”  “Active Aging” is not only keeping Italy’s elderly populations fit, but also supporting and nurturing an environment that empowers an aging individual with educational and volunteering opportunities to remain an active member of society.

How does the Council on Aging for Henderson County reflect the value Italy places on “Active Aging”? By providing members of “Lunch at the Sammy” (our congregate nutrition program at the Sammy Williams Center) with weekly yoga and balance classes, we provide options for healthy & active aging.

Aging Around the World: Spain

by Patti Digh, Council on Aging for Henderson County Board Member

In this series, we are exploring the norms around aging in each of the countries that will be represented at our Wine Around the World event on October 22, 2015. There are only a handful of tickets left, but they’re going fast. Tickets can be purchased at our office or online here: coa.eventbrite.

SOCIAL WELL­BEING KEY TO HEALTHY

What if we are all wrong about the brains of older adults? Cognitive neuroscience, a subfield of psychology that incorporates methods from neuroscience, uses measures of brain activity to understand human thought. The emphasis is on how the brain shapes behavior.

Using cognitive neuroscience methods to study aging has unexpectedly revealed that aging brains remain somewhat malleable and plastic. Plasticity refers to the ability to flexibly recruit different areas of the brain to do different jobs.

In contrast to the earlier, largely pessimistic view of aging, neuro­ imaging studies suggest aging brains can reorganize and change, and not necessarily for the worse. Social and emotional abilities are relatively well ­preserved with age, it seems, suggesting that brain regions underlying these abilities may not exhibit the same downward trajectory with age as those associated with cognitive abilities. These brain areas may show different patterns of reorganization and change.

AGING IN SPAIN

WAW-Spain-blogpostAs it emerges from tough economic times, Spain must confront the challenge of adequately managing the health and well-being of its older citizens in the face of rising medical costs, limited economic growth and changing social and family dynamics.

Along with other countries in Europe, Spain’s population is graying after decades of falling birth rates. Nearly one ­quarter (24%) of Spain’s population was 60 or older in 2013, a percentage that is expected to rise to four in 10 (40%) by 2050.

Purpose Well­Being

  • You like what you do every day
  • You learn or do something interesting every day

Social Well­Being

  • Someone in your life always encourages you to be healthy
  • Your friends and family give you positive energy every day

Financial Well­Being

  • You have enough money to do everything you want to do
  • In the last seven days, you haven’t worried about money

Community Well­Being

  • The city or area where you live is a perfect place for you.
  • In the last 12 months, you have received recognition for helping to improve the city or area where you live.

Physical Well­Being

  • In the last seven days, you have felt active and productive every day
  • Your physical health is near ­perfect

Social well­being appears to be the key to improving health outcomes for older people in Spain, based on findings from the Gallup­ Healthways Global Well­Being Index. For example, Spaniards who are thriving in social well­being are 45% more likely to evaluate their overall lives highly. These effects extend to physical well­being ­­ those who are thriving in social well­being are more than twice as likely to be thriving in physical well­being as those who are not.

Individuals who are not thriving in social well­being, on the other hand, are 30% more likely to say that they experienced stress yesterday.

How is Spain hoping to increase social well-being among older Spaniards?

  • Local and community outreach programs designed to promote health and prevent illness, such as a diabetes care program
  • Programs that emphasize regularly checking in on and interacting with elderly residents and ensuring their wellbeing needs are met
  • Meal delivery or preparation assistance to ensure proper nutritional intake among older Spaniards
  • Help with managing tasks such as home maintenance, cleaning and shopping
  • Improvements in information, transparency, monitoring and evaluation of services
  • Alternatives to traditional hospitalization such as home care for less acute conditions
  • Strategies to reduce inequalities in healthcare, including outreach to poorer communities and populations who are less likely to receive care

How is the work of the Council on Aging for Henderson County in alignment with this framework of improving social well­being in the aging? Through our “Lunch at the Sammy” program, we provide a place for the older adults of Henderson County to socialize and grow a community. Our Meals on Wheels volunteers, don’t just deliver a meal. Our volunteers are a friendly face at the door, 5 days a week, our clients can count on.

Aging Around the World: France

by Patti Digh, Council on Aging for Henderson County Board Member

In this series, we are exploring the norms around aging in each of the countries that will be represented at our Wine Around the World event on October 22, 2015. There are tickets left, but they’re going fast. Tickets can be purchased at our office or online here: coa.eventbrite.

Old Age is Relative

Frequently, the average life expectancy in a given region determines what age counts as “old.”

For example, in the United States, where the average life expectancy is over 78 years, people are not considered “old” until they are in their sixties or seventies.

However, in Chad the average life expectancy is less than 49 years. People in their thirties or forties are therefore already middle-aged or “old.”

These variations in people’s perceptions of who is considered elderly indicates that notions of youth and age are culturally constructed. There is thus no such thing as a universal age for being considered old. This concept of “old” is also influenced by cultural norms and stereotypes of “old” in various cultures.

Let’s journey to France to see what “old” means there, and what “rights” the elderly have there.

Elder Rights in France

WAW-France-blogpostA new Elderly Rights Law passed in China wags a finger at adult children, warning them to “never neglect or snub elderly people” and mandating that they visit their elderly parents often, regardless of how far away they live. The law includes enforcement mechanisms, too: Offspring who fail to make such trips to mom and dad face potential punishment ranging from fines to jail time.

Western cultures tend to be youth-centric, emphasizing attributes like individualism and independence. This relates back to the Protestant work ethic, which ties an individual’s value to his or her ability to work — something that diminishes in old age. Anthropologist Jared Diamond, who has studied the treatment of the elderly across cultures, has said the geriatric in countries like the U.K. and U.S. live “lonely lives separated from their children and lifelong friends.” As their health deteriorates, the elderly in these cultures often move to retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes.

It’s difficult to imagine such an Elderly Rights Law being a legislative priority in many Western cultures. France did, however, pass a similar decree in 2004 (Article 207 of the Civil Code) requiring its citizens to keep in touch with their geriatric parents. It was only enacted following two disturbing events, though: One was the publication of statistics revealing France had the highest rate of pensioner suicides in Europe, and the other was the aftermath of a heat wave that killed 15,000 people — most of them elderly, and many of whom had been dead for weeks before they were found.

In France, the elderly receive a payment similar to Social Security, which increases according to the recipient’s income and care needs. But these insurance programs only provide financial support, and do little, if anything, to address what the Chinese call the “spiritual needs” of the old. China’s law, therefore, was intended to exert moral pressure on sons and daughters to attend to their parents — seeing retired parents, that legislation makes clear, is your job.

What does the Council on Aging Henderson County do that reflects the values of France around aging? While the Council on Aging primarily focuses on providing tangible support for the elderly — with food programs like Meals on Wheels — contact through social workers and volunteers provides the social, human connection that’s equally important.

Aging Around the World: Australia

by Patti Digh, Council on Aging for Henderson County Board Member

In this series, we are exploring the norms around aging in each of the countries that will be represented at our Wine Around the World event on October 22, 2015. There are tickets left, but they’re going fast. Tickets can be purchased at our office or online here: coa.eventbrite.

REFRAMING WHAT IT MEANS TO GROW OLD

There is nothing inherently problematical about growing old. And yet in most nations, old age is increasingly understood in “social problem” terms. As we all must age and eventually die, any cultural belief system that cannot provide security, meaning, and self-esteem for those who reach the conclusion of life’s natural sequences will eventually have to change.

Such is the case in the United States, where the cultural values of youth, vitality, competitiveness, and self-sufficiency are decreasingly relevant for an ever-increasing proportion of the population. Being life’s culminating stage– and because endings (whether musical resolutions, joke punchlines, desserts, or funeral eulogies) have a way of shaping the meaning of wholes–the meaning we attribute to old age shapes the very meaning of the entire human life-cycle.

CHANGING “AGE-ISM” IN AUSTRALIA

WAW-australia-blogpostThe most recent Australian suicide statistics show that, out of the whole population, men aged 85 years and over have the highest suicide rates. While the attention these figures have garnered is a positive sign, this is hardly a new phenomenon.

Over 38 men in every 100,000 of that age group die by suicide, which is more than double the rate among men under 35. The rate is around seven times higher than in women of all ages.

With very few exceptions in Australia’s history, annual suicide rates have always peaked in older males.

This is a common theme worldwide. Most countries record their peak suicide rates in this group. So why has the problem of suicide in older males not been an issue of concern for the general public?

And why are these men committing suicide? Partially because our definitions of vitality (and perhaps manhood itself) leave them out, causing them to experience severe depression, loneliness, social isolation and lack of social support; physical health issues, such as pain and cancer; and loss of independence. And partially because of our own ageist attitudes, which cause us to believe that being depressed in old age is “normal,” when the opposite is actually true: clinical depression can (and often does) lessen with aging.

What does the Council on Aging for Henderson County do that works to counter the beliefs or stereotypes about aging that are prevalent in Australia and other Western cultures? The Council actively promotes the individual dignity and agency of the elderly, and in doing, aids in their belief in their own independence and social support.

 

Aging Around the World: United States

by Patti Digh, Council on Aging for Henderson County Board Member

In this series, we are exploring the norms around aging in each of the countries that will be represented at our Wine Around the World event on October 22, 2015. There are tickets left, but they’re going fast. Tickets can be purchased at our office or online here: coa.eventbrite.

CULTURAL SNAPSHOTS OF AGING

Much of the Korean regard for aging is rooted in the principle that one must respect one’s parents and fulfill one’s duty to care for the aging members of the family. A big celebration marks an individual’s 60th and 70th birthdays. The hwan-gap, or 60th birthday, is when children celebrate their parents’ passage into old age. That age is reason for celebration in part because many of their ancestors would not have survived past the age of 60 without the advances of modern medicine. A similar large family celebration is held for the 70th birthday, known as kohCui (“old and rare”).

Is this celebratory approach to aging also present in the U.S.?

The answer is both “yes” and “no.”

UNITED STATES

WAW-us-blogpostThe tree-lined streets of Hogewey, just outside Amsterdam, has shops, restaurants, a movie theater and a hairdresser. But Hogewey is not a real village; it’s a nursing home.

The supermarket cashier, the restaurant manager—all are staff who work incognito and are specially trained to care for people with dementia. Most of the residents think it’s a real village.

Before Hogeway, there was Towsley Village Memory Care Center in Chelsea, Michigan, home to 100 dementia patients living in four distinct neighborhoods, complete with 50s-style coffee shops.

The U.S. is characterized by both compassionate energy for maintaining the dignity of older citizens, and also by a mania for looking youthful; the U.S. also holds the dichotomy of the elderly as quaint relics or as vital volunteers and workers, often placing them into three basic categories:

  • Those who are no longer fully productive economically, but are physically and mentally able to meet their daily needs
  • Those who are functionally dependent, require long-term care, and are regarded as social burdens (and might be treated negatively as a result)
  • Those who continue to participate actively in the economy and social system through farming or self-employment, care of grandchildren, or household maintenance, while younger adults work outside the home

Contrast this compassionate approach to aging in the U.S. and elsewhere, with our parallel national obsession with remaining youthful. In this culture, we consider asking someone’s age to be a high insult (followed closely by asking about salary). Teenagers lie about their age to be able to join the military or buy beer. Actresses lie about their age as an act not of vanity but of survival in that industry.

How can we reconcile our plastic surgery-crazed culture with this celebratory, compassionate one that reveres old age? Perhaps by focusing on what’s good about older people:

Older workers are more reliable and have a stronger work ethic than younger workers. They also take fewer sick days.

Native American elders are expected to pass down their knowledge and teach us how to think about the ends of our lives, moving us from fear to acceptance and celebration of death as a fact of life.

Some people make history in their later life, like American primitivist painter Anna Mary “Grandma” Moses, who took up painting at age 75 when arthritis made embroidery too difficult. One of her paintings sold for $1.2 million in 2006. And Mary Harris “Mother” Jones hit her stride as a workers’ rights activist when she was in her 60s, earning her the title of “the most dangerous woman in America.”

Understand the U.S. obsession with youthful appearance for what it is: An urge toward relevancy, and give us instead, the wisdom, experience, and trailblazer spirit of our elders.

What does the Council on Aging for Henderson County do that reflects the values of our country around aging? We celebrate aging in place through maintaining vibrant programming at the Sammy Williams Center, through going the extra mile for our clients, and by tapping into a talent pool of older adults as indispensable volunteers and staff.