The number of people over the age of 60 is expected to double by 2050, say the World Health Organization, who call for a radical shift in society's attitude to aging and older people.
This was the main message of a new report on aging and health from the World Health Organization (WHO), whose Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan explains:
"Today, most people, even in the poorest countries, are living longer lives. But this is not enough. We need to ensure these extra years are healthy, meaningful and dignified. Achieving this will not just be good for older people, it will be good for society as a whole."
The report finds that, contrary to widespread belief, longer lives are not necessarily healthier lives. Unlike previous generations at the same age, added years are not being experienced in better health, but they could be and they should be, says Dr. John Beard, director of the WHO's Department of Aging and Life Course.
Longer and healthier lives appear to be confined to the more advantaged segments of society. The disadvantaged, or those in poorer countries with fewer resources to call upon in older age, are also likely to be in poorest health and have the greatest need, he adds.
The report notes that more must be done to reject the stereotype that older people are frail and dependent. There is too much emphasis on the burden that older people place on society and too little on their ability to contribute, the report says, and it urges governments to ensure older people can continue to participate in society.
The report highlights research that shows the contribution that a diverse population of older people makes to families, communities and society as a whole far outweighs the cost of caring and supporting older people.
It says countries should focus less on controlling the costs of caring for older people and do more to help them do the things that matter to them - especially women, who make up the majority of older people and shoulder much of the burden of caring for family and the less able.
Dr. Flavia Bustreo, WHO assistant director-general for family, women's and children's health, notes:
"As we look to the future, we need to appreciate the importance of aging in the lives of women, particularly in poorer countries. And we need to think much more about how we can ensure the health of women right across the life course."
'Radical changes needed in society'
WHO say radical changes are needed in society. For instance, we have to make it much easier for older people to live and work in our cities, towns and communities. The health organization gives examples of initiatives in this area, such as Men's Sheds in Australia, and a project to improve the security of older people in the slums of New Delhi.
WHO cite a number of recommendations from changing transport systems and encouraging mobility, to helping older people learn, grow and make decisions, stay in work or become volunteers, to adapt their homes and get to grips with new technology.
One individual example is that of Yeun, a 59-year-old grandfather who lives alone and cares for two grandchildren in a village in Cambodia. The older people's association HelpAge helped him start a new business. They arranged for him to undergo an apprenticeship in bicycle repair and then gave him a grant of 880,000 Cambodian riels ($220) to buy tools and get started. Yeun says he is much better off now, and adds:
"I think older people should never give up and always keep hope. Even if you are disabled as I am, you can live with your efforts, you can live with your skills. With a little help I was able to set up this business; I think others can do the same."
WHO say there is also a need to realign health systems to meet the needs of older people. There has to be less emphasis on curing acute disease and more on providing ongoing care for the chronic conditions that prevail in older age.
Again, some projects are already showing the way forward in these areas, and WHO cites examples that include establishing multi-disciplinary teams of doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, psychologists, nutritionists and occupational therapists in Brazil, and the sharing of computerized clinical charts among care institutions in Canada.
'Less inappropriate acute care, more long-term provision'
The WHO report says governments have to develop long-term care systems that reduce inappropriate use of acute health services and concentrate on helping people live their last years with dignity.
WHO give the example of Ghana, where following the introduction of its National Aging Policy: Aging with Security and Dignity in 2010, an assessment of needs highlights significant treatment gaps and the need to better integrate the care of older people into existing health services. There is now a move to use Ghana's well-established community health worker program to meet the needs of its older population.
The report concludes:
"These actions are likely to be a sound investment in society's future. A future that gives older people the freedom to live lives that previous generations might never have imagined."
Toby Porter, CEO of HelpAge, says WHO's flagship report "provides a framework for addressing how people's health and care needs in older age can be achieved."
Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently learned of a study that found employed older adults are generally healthier. Researchers from the University of Miami in Florida pooled data on over 80,000 adults aged 65 and over and found even after accounting for smoking, obesity and other risk factors, being unemployed or retired was linked to the greatest risk of poor health.