An Aging Population Is an Opportunity More Than a Problem

Today, there are over 900 million people in the world over the age of 60. By 2050, that number will have grown to 2.4 billion. According to World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan, "Being in the older age group is becoming the 'new normal' for the world's population." At the outset, this rapid growth of an older demographic could be seen as a major problem. However, as essayist John Gardner once said, "We're all faced with a series of great opportunities, brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems." Put in the context of our aging demographic, for us to capitalize on the new promise of longevity, we need to re-envision our lives and what "aging well" means. We are in a time of real change, of enormous challenges and opportunities. If we act now, we can actually create a world where aging is a boon and not a burden.

We have to start by determining whether or not our society is suited to assist older persons through their newer, longer, lives. Particular sensitivity should be focused on whether or not our fast-changing social, cultural and economic norms are aiding or outpacing seniors. Unfortunately, a recent white paper from the Philips Center for Health and Well-being's Think Tank on Aging Well concluded that the speed of change has outpaced the rate at which individuals, families, communities and global society are adapting. This finding highlights the need for a strategic focus on learning how to manage life transitions well -- individually and collectively -- an effort that can yield important dividends in adding quality to our increasing years.

Overcoming the misconceptions about the aged will also provide significant steps forward. For example, the negative notion that older individuals are resistant to new trends and technologies must be challenged. A Philips study recently found that a majority of individuals aged 65 or older are comfortable using technology (54%). However, the study found that there is a gap between perception and reality, with younger people thinking only 42% of seniors use tech in their daily lives. We have to correct our perceptions of the aged and align them with reality. A realistic view will allow a greater scope for supporting older people to remain independent and active well into their later years.

The focus of what we can do to support aging and help create a positive future lies with five key needs among older people: health; financial security; the ability and opportunity to contribute and be productive; the ability to connect with their communities; and the opportunity to have fun and to recreate. We must respond to these needs if we want to help them remain effective contributors to society. This can be achieved, in part, through offering products and services to enhance and protect older people's health and wealth so they can continue to contribute.

We need to move away from viewing aging solely as a time of inevitable decline to one that can be rich with new innovations and possibilities. Governments should continue to encourage, through economic and policy incentives, an aging population that stays active and productive in the workforce, engaged in their communities and maintains independence for as long as possible. Governments, NGOs and the private sector must develop innovative ways to address health inequity, increase physical activity and healthy diets and empower citizens to make their own decisions about their health choices. This will help limit modifiable risk factors and take advantage of prevention and treatment interventions to manage the diseases that cause much of the morbidity in older people. A focus on enabling workforce and community engagement, creating age-friendly environments and promoting technologies that facilitate greater independence and patient-centered care is also beneficial.

The dismissal that surrounds the aging population is misplaced, but only if the necessary steps are taken to support the elderly. NGOs, governments, private sector entities and the general public must develop policies, programs and technologies to facilitate Aging Well. Together, we have the opportunity to re-think aging and to find creative ways to apply the experience and knowledge of older people to build age-friendly societies that will enable everyone -- of whatever age -- to put his or her capabilities to best use.