This blog typically offers ideas on how to manage thorny, complex issues. However, this blog is different. It talks about one of the most profound issues that we need to manage – an aging society.
The Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging has issued a report calling an aging society one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century and urging cities to move the issue to the top of their policy agendas. Aging is not just an urban issue. It impacts rural America just as profoundly, with fewer resources to meet the challenge.
In addition to reinforcing the seismic shift in US demographics, the report’s most salient point is the complexity of the aging issue. “Older adults can span from healthy, active, highly productive members of communities to [those] needing assistance with daily living, being homebound or living with life-limiting illnesses like dementia.”
Consequently, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the challenge of aging, the report says. But there is one unifying factor – economic impact. “Older adults are as equally diverse as the younger population, but they hold the position as major – albeit complex – drivers of economic expansion. Americans over age 50 account for $7.6 trillion in direct spending and related economic activity, a figure surpassing the GDP of every nation except the US and China. By 2032, the so-called Longevity Economy is projected to reach more than $13.5 trillion (52 percent of the US GDP).” Older adults also tend to be power figures in the economy, with authoritative roles and accumulated fortunes.
The report’s authors say city leaders are missing the boat by clinging to aging stereotypes and failing to tap into the opportunities presented by an aging population. “Age-Forward policies make economic sense. A healthy and engaged older population reduces dependency and service costs. Older adults’ work and community participation support economic vitality. And aging adults who feel purposeful (for example, through volunteerism) experience a heightened sense of well-being and lower levels of physical and mental decline.” The experience achieved through lifetimes make older adults invaluable resources in business, nonprofits and the public sector.
A Forbes article discussing the new report cites National League of Cities data confirming the Milken Center conclusion. An analysis of mayoral speeches shows 58 percent refer to economic development as a priority while only 12 percent mention demographics. Of that 12 percent, only 16 percent discuss a role for older adults.
“The urban landscape already holds resources – human, organizational and technological – that can transform aging lives,” the report notes. “From inter-generational mixed-use neighborhoods to smart city technologies and integrated housing and healthcare models, there is progress. But too many local leaders still overlook the connection between aging policies and their cities’ vitality and sustainability.”
The report offers strategies to cope with and capitalize on aging communities. “By integrating population aging into strategies for growth, inclusion and resiliency, cities can implement solutions that will strengthen how we grow, build and care for generations to come.”
Some specific recommendations contained in the report:
Create and expand local workforce development programs that provide training updates and new skills for older workers and expand volunteer programs that connect multiple generations.
Expand incentives for affordable older-adult living arrangements, emphasizing the need for varied middle-income housing solutions; remove regulatory disincentives that curtail co-housing arrangements for unrelated adults; and accelerate permit process for accessory dwelling units.
Expand public initiatives that prioritize investment in the civic commons to facilitate intentional intergenerational interaction and engagement.
For older adults who are immobile and live in remote rural areas, solutions may rest more on community networks than city governments and on innovation rather than regulation. Older adults of color face unique challenges, whether in urban or rural settings, resulting from decades of discrimination and economic inequality.
A well-documented challenge is the lack of personal financial resources by many older adults who are unable to pay for long-term care insurance, assisted living or even in-home health care.
An easily overlooked, but critical challenge is how to overcome the dire shortage of trained caregivers.
Without a game plan or lots of money, the burden of basic care for older adults – housing, food, medical care and transportation – falls on their families, who often live in different cities and may be under financial strain themselves.
As an issue, aging ranks up there with climate change and artificial intelligence. A key difference is that successful aging will depend on a unique blend of collaboration – between generations, within families and through community networks. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security provide a foundation. Cities can organize, technology can offset immobility and charities can contribute, but people – all of us – will have to make the life-changing adjustments.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.