This article was originally published in Project M, an Allianz SE International Pensions publication featuring unique perspectives on investments and retirement.
"No, I'm the oldest person in the world," boasted China's Luo Meizhen. Despite not having a birth certificate to verify her claim, she threw down her gauntlet upon learning that Japan's Jiroemon Kimura had been officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest person alive.
Though at 115 Kimura is young compared to Meizhen's 127 years, the two supercentenarians (those 110 or older) have more in common than lives spanning across three centuries. Both are active agers.
The post-WWII longevity revolution of the 20th century began in developed countries and spread to developing countries. This change is likely to have the single-most important impact on society in the 21st century.
According to a 2012 joint report by the United Nation's Population Fund (UNFPA) and HelpAge International, the 60+ population is growing at a faster rate than the total population in almost all regions of the world. By 2025, there will be 1.2 billion people over the age of 60 and over two billion by 2050. Of that, the number of centenarians is expected to grow fastest: from an estimated 316,600 in 2011 to a staggering 3.2 million by 2050.
This is cause for celebration. But how will societies help an unprecedented number of older persons maintain their intellectual and physical independence while encouraging them to remain active participants in all aspects of society?
It is certainly an issue to be addressed. In Europe alone, approximately 50 million people over the age of 65 are expected to require long-term care by 2060. Of those, 31.9 million will be nursed in their own homes. A tremendous burden to their families and to society as a whole.
Longevity is a Revolution
In the late 1990s, the WHO began promoting ‘active aging,' a term it coined to describe policies to optimize "opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance the quality of life as people age." This addresses more than a life of continued physical activity and an extended work life; its aim is to encourage people to stay actively engaged in social, economic, cultural, spiritual and civic activities.
Like supercentenarians Kimura and Meizhen. Kimura worked 38 years at the post office before taking up farming, which he continued until he was 90. Today, the 115-year-old Okinawan is learning to speak English.
His quasquicentennial-plus rival still moves about easily. On most days, she climbs one of the mountains of the remote areas of the Guangxi Zhuang province to work on her family's farm. At an age the United Nations would officially qualify as being an ‘older person' (60), Meizhen gave birth to her youngest son.
Maintaining autonomy is a goal of the WHO's active-aging policy framework. As the WHO argues, "countries can afford to age if governments, international organizations and society enact active-aging policies and programs to enhance the health, participation and security of 60+ citizens." It goes on to explain, old age in and of itself does not increase public health care expenditures. What's costly are disabilities and poor health associated with old age.
"How can the largest achievement of the 20th century become the biggest problem of the 21st century?"
Alexandre Kalache, former head of the WHO Ageing and Life Course Programme
Alexandre Kalache, former head of the WHO Ageing and Life Course Programme and vigorous proponent of active aging, told PROJECT M, "All too often, decisions are taken in the spirit of coping with the inconvenience these changes bring rather than using its potential advantages and benefits."
He continues, "How can the largest achievement of the 20th century become the biggest problem of the 21st century? Longevity is a revolution. This is the first time in history that increased life expectancies have taken place on a global level. If countries were to recognize healthy aging as a factor of their development agendas, they would view aging populations not as a problem, but as a precious – if sometimes ignored – resource."
The WHO contends that older persons are making a major contribution to society in ways that cannot be measured in economic terms. This includes as "mediators, educators, workers, volunteers, homemakers and caregivers, as sources of knowledge and historical memory, and as guardians of culture." And, with the older generation becoming increasingly active in the political process, it is exerting ever more political clout.
Embracing the Elderly
For older persons to be a resource and not a burden, health care providers and professionals must take the lead by encouraging people to adopt healthy lifestyles and actively participate in their own care throughout the entire life. According to the WHO, policies to promote health and prevent disease could prevent – or at least delay – the types of disabilities and chronic illnesses that are costly to individuals, families and the health care system.
In addition, for older persons to continue to make a contribution in both paid and unpaid activities as they age, programs need to support their participation. Initiatives such as lifelong learning and literacy programs, as well as working conditions have to be adapted to the health and needs of older workers. In addition, they need access to credit schemes, and small business and development opportunities.
Given that in 2008 – for the first time in history – the majority of the world's population lived in cities and that by 2030, three out of every five people are expected to live in urban areas, the WHO urges civic leaders to promote age-friendly cities and communities. This includes barrier-free public spaces, intergenerational co-residences and assistive technologies to increase safety at home and to promote communication. Such initiatives can reduce the disadvantage, isolation and marginalization many older persons experience, helping them maintain their health and participation, protection and dignity.