Commentary - March 19th, 2014
9:26 am
Thu March 20, 2014

The Future of Aging

Good evening.  I’m Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services; the Area Agency on Aging for Missoula and Ravalli County.  Recently I attended the American Society on Aging’s (ASA) national conference, the largest one related to aging in the country. For 60 years ASA has studied the issues and opportunities surrounding our nation as we age. Tonight I will share some of the exciting conference highlights.  

One of the most dynamic and thought provoking sessions focused on the future of aging and featured esteemed presenters from around the country, like Joseph Coughlin, Director of Age Lab at MIT, and Ken Dychtwald, CEO of AgeWave, among others.

To put their remarks in context, panelists shared these significant demographic facts for the future of aging:

  • By the year 2030, only 16 years from now, more people will be over age 65 than under age 15.
  • People turning 50 today can expect to live at least another 30 years. 
  • Currently 47 percent of all people over the age of 85 have Alzheimer’s. 

Panel members addressed several key areas that, as a society and through good public policy, can make a difference in how successfully we age. I could speak at length about any one of these, but tonight I will simply give you an overview.

The first pillar for successful aging is the need for us to build communities that are age friendly and livable for all ages.  This encompasses housing, access to health care, roads, walkways, transportation and more. For example, a city that is walkable by all ages is one in which you can walk with a stroller as well as a wheelchair. Consider housing needs, which are often the same for the young as well as older people. 

The second area involves health and wellness. Starting with the epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease, we need to put our brightest scientists to work finding a cure. Pharmaceutical companies and medical universities should work together to make this a priority because without a cure, our nation’s health care costs will not decrease. In addition, individuals need to take personal responsibility for their own health. With easily accessible health programs and affordable wellness opportunities, millions of Americans can better manage their chronic diseases or, better yet, prevent them.

A big part of the future of aging relates to social responsibility. Community members need to come together as intergenerational volunteers to help others. There is simply no way we will ever be able to support all the care needs of older adults without the help of volunteers. Today’s older vital adults—those already engaged and involved in the community—are a huge asset.  Baby Boomers, not always known for their volunteerism, can step it up. Did you know the average retiree watches 47 hours of TV a week? Imagine what could be accomplished if those retirees who can get out to help would do so!

Educational systems that address the third age of life are another essential pillar of successful aging. The third age is described as life after work and children. Long before a person retires, they need to be educated on how to prepare for longevity. This includes financial planning, encore careers and how to spend some of your retirement years towards service to your community.

Technology will obviously hold important economic and service delivery solutions for the future. How might a vulnerable elderly person receive health care without having to visit the doctor every time they have a health concern?  Technology can be the answer, once we engage engineers, mathematicians and technologists to work together to develop economical applications. Technology can also help people safely stay at home or travel to appointments. Already developed is a spoon that can automatically balance a shaking hand--particularly useful for people with Parkinson’s disease who can’t control trembling. Wheelchairs are being developed that will operate with voice command. Telehealth is opening doors for rural and isolated people to receive face-to-face consultations with a provider who can monitor things like blood pressure and oxygen levels through easy at-home systems. By catching warning signs early, costly re-admissions to the hospital are reduced. In our rural state, telehealth will be especially helpful.

The final key area for successful aging will be through collaborations and partnerships of not-for-profit and for-profit organizations. For-profits can create innovative approaches to solving problems with technology and capital. Not-for-profits understand the needs of the people they serve. Combining the two can only help strengthen all the other pillars to make our communities places to age successfully.

As we look to our future, we need to plan as if we will live to be 100 years old. Many of us likely will. This is Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services and as always, thanks for listening.

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