The World Bank recently released a story about the economic, social and cultural impacts of an aging population, namely in Europe and Central Asia. The picture that the World Bank paints is full of downsides, mostly economic.
Instead of focusing on how the elderly will burden our society — does Japan’s finance minister’s comment about the elderly “hurrying up and dying” ring any bells? — let’s focus on the ways that they enrich our families and communities. It’s not just about monetary enrichment either. I’ve learned from my own family about the value of having an older loved one around.
Why I Care
From an early age, I had no choice but to confront the realities of old age. At first, as my grandpa aged, he was still able to remain active and help the family out by picking me up from school. Eventually, however, my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease, a series of strokes and the weakness of old age eventually left him immobile. My grandpa didn’t always know who we were, including his own son, my dad. He wasn’t in control of his bowel movements. He couldn’t bathe, groom or feed himself. Yet we still didn’t devalue him.
Anytime that he was hospitalized, he would immediately fight and be a “problem” patient. I couldn’t help feeling heartbroken for the patients without family support. Many of the patients had a dull look in their eyes probably from the all of the unnecessary drugs, while my grandpa never did. Many of them were also very angry and overly aggressive; this only happened to my grandpa when he was outside of our home.
I believe that not even the best staff or medical facility can replace a family’s warmth. Let’s be happy and grateful that our elderly loved ones can still contribute. And even when they are no longer physically or mentally able to contribute, throwing them away isn’t doing them any justice or favors.
Why the World Bank Cares
Whether we want to think about it or not, the world is getting older. For instance, Europe’s fertility rate has fallen. A new analysis forecasts that “the average age in Europe will be 42.2 by 2020, compared to 39.8 in 2010.”
Our changing demographics result from two major lifestyle changes: 1) People are living longer; and 2) People are having fewer children. As a result, there will be more middle-aged and elderly than those in the 20s- 30s bracket.
While it’s hard to predict the impact of a new demographic, researchers and leaders can pinpoint some economic downsides of an overwhelming aging population:
- There will be less of a labor supply.
- There will be a possible loss of labor productivity.
- The elderly aren’t the best equipped to save their income.
- If there’s less saving, then there’s less investment opportunities.
- Even though there will be economic dulls with an aging population, there will be a high demand for social services, e.g. long-term health care.
- More social services will stress public finances as a whole.
How the Elderly Care About Society
I don’t believe for a second that the elderly want to stop contributing to society. No one ever wants to feel like a burden or lose their autonomy. It’s especially hard to leave one’s own well-being in the hands of a stranger.
We shouldn’t approach the situation from a purely economic perspective. While my grandfather’s case of immobility was an extreme, fortunately, this doesn’t have to be the case for every older person. The elderly can add tremendous value if we give them the opportunity. Here are a few ways that senior citizens can still contribute:
- When age 65 hits, not every senior citizen is jumping at the chance to retire. As reported in Gallup, since the end of the U.S. recession, there are more seniors still in the workforce. In some instances, there are more seniors than 18 to 29-year-olds in the workforce. Poor planning and living paycheck-to-paycheck mean that the elderly aren’t financially able to retire.
- Senior citizens can still make economic contributions. They can still retail shop, employ services and pay their own taxes. Evidence Network explains how the elderly also make ample donations to charity.
- They play a core role in volunteerism. Volunteering can fulfill their needs for human connection, and it can give them a sense of purpose.
- The elderly can be some of the best artists. Mental Floss lists the impressionist painter Claude Monet, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and composer Elliott Carter as a few senior citizens who still churned out chefs-d‘œuvre in their old age.
- Like my grandfather, they can play important roles in the home and family. They can be teachers, wisdom sharers and helpers around the house and in the rearing of children.
Photo Credit: Mario Mancuso