Friday, December 01, 2006

Aging: Past; Present; Future (Part 1)

"Aging ain't what it used to be." Not a complicated statement, but its simplicity belies its importance.

Speaking yesterday at a Wilder Research "mini-conference" on aging, I offered welcoming remarks to the audience. As a member of the Baby-Boom generation and as a research professional, I added in a few observations related to aging, services for people who are aging, and the funding of those services. I would like to share them.

"Aging ain't what is used to be." Getting old in the 21st century will differ from the process of getting old at any time in the past. Compare yourself to your grandparents or great-grandparents. When I do that, I see that my brothers, sisters, cousins - the descendents of my four grandparents - have far more formal education, along with a much longer life expectancy, than did those four people who lived just two generations ago. Greater longevity is not just a characteristic of my extended family; it's something that all groups are experiencing.

"For many societies worldwide, aging will bring more of everything." A significant implication of the changing demographics is that we will see more of everything, good and bad, among older generations.

On the positive side, more people will live longer, healthier lives. Some may want to remain in the workforce until a later age, which in certain markets will be beneficial because not enough younger talent exists to take over their jobs. Many will have the wealth to assist the economy as consumers; many will have wealth they will share through charitable contributions. The potential supply of volunteers will increase - people in good health, with time and skills.

On the negative side, we will see more people who live longer with disabilities; we'll see more in their 80s, 90s, and 100s who need care and assistance. There will be more poor elderly, more living alone, more isolated older people.

One thing is clear: We will need new, creative ways of working together as communities to address the needs of the aging population of the 21st century. I encouraged the group not just to think about how we provide services now, but about how new service arrangments might be created to meet new needs. I also encouraged them not to think in the categories of current funding. Those funding sources could change or disappear in an instant. Rather, we must identify what our population will look like in the future, along with how we want people to live and how we want our communities to function. Then, we can work to identify the best means for assembling the resources to achieve our vision. Trying to move ahead while force-fitting the generations of the future into the categories of the past will absolutely not work for us.

Within the next few days, I'll continue on this issue, in parts 2 and 3 - discussing challenges and options. I'll also mention how you can access some of the information from the mini-conference. If you have thoughts, please let me know.

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