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By David Thomason, PhD, Public Administration
Department, Social and Behavioral Sciences
There are two forces propelling aging issues to the forefront of global
public health. First, thanks to the advances in medicine, economic means, and
access to sustainable agriculture, we are seeing a rising life expectancy. In
1950, the average global life expectancy was 48 years old. Today, the average
global life expectancy is 68 years old. Second,
much of the world is experiencing zero or negative population growth. European nations, along with Japan, are experiencing zero
or negative population growth. By some
estimates, China is expected to reach zero population growth by 2030. The World
Health Organization, in a recent report on aging, projected that those 60 and
over worldwide will double, from currently 600 million to 1.2 billion by 2025 (World Health Organization, “Global Health and Aging,” 2 January, 2012).
Life expectancy increases and a
worldwide stabilizing trend in growth are leading to an aging global population.
In the United States, for example, the first of the Baby Boomer generation are
reaching age 65. According to the Pew Research Center, 10,000 Baby Boomers will
reach age 65 each day for the next 19 years. Japan’s Emperor Akihito, reflecting on his own
79th birthday, remarked that “one of the social issues of concern is
the rapidly aging population.” Across the globe, the aging trend is adding
additional pressure on health care access and delivery, an older workforce, and
pressure on affordable housing options.
Critical to the increased aging population is a rise in elderly abuse. Elder
abuse has arguably reached an epidemic level both in the United States and
globally. Estimates by National Center on Elder Abuse are that as many as 10 percent
of all elders in the United States experience some physical abuse, with over 90
person of the abuse by family members of the elderly (National Center on Elder
Abuse, “Fact Sheet,” 2005). Physical, mental, emotional, and financial abuse can occur in a variety
of settings. But, the primary setting for the abuse is in the home.
Clearly, the issue deserves careful attention by policymakers. Where
should policymakers begin to address the causes of this epidemic? How can
policymakers reduce the likelihood of elder abuse? Let me suggest three policy
approaches that could lead to a safer environment for our aging population.
Policymakers should address the issue of respite care for families
caring for an aging person. The strain of caring for someone aging can often
take a physical and financial toll on families. In the case of Alzheimer’s, for
example, the stress of caring for a family member is a constant struggle. The
Alzheimer’s Association reports that one third of family caregivers suffer from
some form of depression. The cost on the
family caregiver is also economic (Alzheimer’s Association Report, “2011
Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures,” 28, 2011).
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “the economic value of the unpaid
care provided to those with
Alzheimer’s and other dementias totaled $202.6 billion in 2010.” Such
pressure on family members creates a powder keg in the home. Workplace
absences, physical exhaustion, and a general sense of isolation can lead to
violent outbursts towards the elderly person. Federal and state elected
officials are beginning to recognize that investing in a respite care policies
can prevent the possible health and safety hazards. But policymakers should move more rapidly to
fund and provide availability for respite care.
Addressing the issues of social discrimination against the aging remains
a critical component of abuse. Lawmakers can provide leadership in this problem
on at least two levels. First, consider the opportunity of pairing public schools
with aging communities. Creating intergenerational ties runs counter to our
contemporary loss of social capital. Robert Putnam, in his work Bowling Alone, argues that this loss of
social capital leads to fragmented communities and disconnections between
generations. It also has the potential
for creating a general prejudice among generations that do not behave as we
want them. Psychologists refer to this as prescriptive prejudice. The world is built on the perception that
youthful is better than elderly. This general perception can lead to demeaning
those in older generations and ultimately relegating those in an older
generation as less important, opening the door to potential abusive situations.
Defining the role of social services fits within the broader policy
goals of addressing elder abuse. Often, lawmakers describe social services in a
pejorative light. A misunderstanding among policymakers is that social service
spending, particularly Medicaid, is a money pit for public budgeting. This
attitude has the potential to create a stigma of avoidance among public policy
decisions. Aging policy, for example, has not traditionally been at the
forefront of campaigns and elections. Few candidates discuss aging policy,
unless it is to highlight the problems of institutional care. What lawmakers
overlook in the rhetoric surrounding the cost of social services is the
economic investment such programs provide to a community.Aging services is a particularly labor
intensive area. Economic multiplier estimates suggest that for every dollar
invested in the care of our elderly, the local economy receives an additional 7
dollars. Investing in the care and safety of our elderly, then, not only
protects some of the most vulnerable members of our society, but it also
creates an economic return for the community.
Policymakers, both nationally and globally, would do well to remember those
frail and aging members of our communities. Not only because it is the right
thing for human rights, but because it is the right thing to do economically. The aging boom is just beginning and where we
go with our policy decisions in the next several years will be critical to stemming
the epidemic of elderly abuse and discrimination.
Alzheimer’s Association Report. “2011 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.” 2011
National Center on Elder Abuse, “Fact Sheet,” 1. 2005. Retrieved from http://www.ncea.aoa.gov/Resources/Publication/docs/FinalStatistics050331.pdf
World Health Organization. “Global Health and Aging.” 2 January, 2012.
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