It sounds counter-intuitive, but how we are preparing to care for our largest aging population in history today will shape our society tomorrow. In the 21st century, the aging population, though not yet front and center in national conversations, has been quietly impacted in a wide range of areas, such as economics, politics, healthcare, technology and even immigration.
For Arab Americans, elders have always held a special position in the community and are inseparable from their family life and cultural traditions.
Elders’ Digital Divide
What’s the future of aging? Technology is bringing may changes said experts who spoke at the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) 68th Annual Scientific Meeting in Orlando, Fla., last fall.
For many elders, using cell phones and computer tablets might be the closest things to technology in their daily usage. But the “ Internet of Things,” is a high-tech term for a network of embedded electronic sensors in devices that promises to play a big role in how we live as we age. Such sensors will be used in people’s beds (did you get enough sleep?), refrigerators?) what are your eating and how often?), even toilets to monitor a range of medical conditions.
For example, in a GSA research presentation, Allessandro Ble of the University of Exeter Medical School and his colleagues, showed that by connecting health monitoring devices to big data (information stored at a data center with real-time access), which also includes electronic medical records, healthcare providers will be able to fine tune patient care.
For instance, Ble noted, doctors could prescribe certain statins, drugs designed to lower cholesterol in blood, to patients in such a timely and effectively manner that it would help prevent cardiovascular disease and reduce mortality rates, especially in people ages 75 and older.
Another emerging advancement uses portable computer-based devices in both the public and the private sector to enable ailing seniors to relay their medical information and needs to healthcare providers. For example, a patient with impaired speech, such as from a stroke, could receive expert speech therapy sessions online and also have more effective ways available to communicate with their loved ones.
Experts at the GSA conference also discussed issues arising with these technologies, particularly privacy issues. But it was clear that our aging world has more to do with sci-fi than rocking chairs.
But at the same time, they might also feel excited about a growing national movement to integrate the aging population as part of the community, instead of more separate senior retirement developments.
‘Invisible’ Arab Americans
Sociologist Kristine Ajrouch of Eastern Michigan University, makes the case that in general Arab Americans, though they’ve been an important part of American social fabric, are “invisible.”
Speaking at the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) 68th Annual Scientific Meeting in Orlando, Fla., last November, Ajrouch said that is because they’re often overlooked in most health research, even when there’s a focus on minorities. That’s a significant concern in a rapidly aging and increasingly diverse nation.
Ajrouch also joined Wayne State University professors Faith Hopp, Jennifer Mendez and researcher Amne Darwish-Talab to discuss their research on how a cross-cultural adult day care center would be a welcome addition to many Arab Americans living in the Detroit area.
Such centers provide social and health care to frail elders enabling family caregivers to continuing going to work, for instance, so they can keep the older person at home rather than in a nursing home.
Their findings show that besides offering many essential healthcare services, the adult day care center would benefit older adults by providing transportation, help in navigating systems through language translation, and creating a safe and enjoyable environment to socialize and celebrate their cultures and arts.
Senior Issues and 2016 Campaign
More broadly, according to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau figures, one out of five Americans is projected to be over 65 by 2030 with average life expectancy approaching 85.
It’s good news that we are living longer, but experts at the GSA conference raised looming questions about what will sustain us as we grow old.
For example, how well Social Security will be able to pay its future retirement obligations has long been controversial. Since the issue is so divisive across the political spectrum, it has been placed on the back burner ever since the 2007 economic crisis explosion.
Nevertheless, expect another round of debate over this country’s old-age pension program as the 2016 presidential election heats up, with the Republicans arguing to cut future benefits and Democrats calling for increases to protect middle- and lower-income seniors.
Since the issue is so divisive across the political spectrum, it has been placed on the back burner ever since the 2007 economic crisis exploded. Nevertheless, we can expect another round of debate in 2016 when the presidential election heats up as the aging population have among the highest voter turnout rates.
Speaking at a workshop for journalists at the GSA conference, UCLA health policy professor Steven P. Wallace noted a related demographic change.
Wallace, who also directs the national center for the federally-funded Resource Centers for Minority Aging Research, explained that because the current non-Hispanic white majority have has had fewer children, the combined minorities would eventually become the majority in the U.S. around 2050, due to their higher birthrates and immigration flow.
Also, he said, the proportion of ethnic elders alone will double by then to more than four out of 10 seniors.
As a result, Wallace stated that any future national conversation about the aging should include minority and immigration issues.
World Alzheimer Report 2015
Among the greatest health threats to the aging population is the increase of Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia. At the GSA conference, Maelenn Guerchet, MD, of King’s College, London, presented the World Alzheimer Report 2015 that she and her colleagues published last summer.
They found that currently “46.8 million people worldwide are living with dementia in 2015. This number will almost double every 20 years, reaching 74.7 million in 2030 and 131.5 million in 2050.”
The global costs of dementia, which includes both paid professional and informal care, totaled $818 billion in 2015. Informal care, a little more than one-third of that amount, is provided by family members, friends and neighbors.
In the U.S., based on research from the Alzheimer Association, Alzheimer’s disease is the country’s sixth-leading cause of death. About 5.1 million, or one-in-nine people 65 and older, have dementia. In the U.S., about 15 million people provide unpaid care for these patients, and direct healthcare payments are estimated to be $226 billion in 2015.
These costs and the informal care represent an enormous challenge for the healthcare system, American families, and the government in the near future.
Elders’ Shifting Role
Many issues for ethnic elders and their families were also addressed at the GSA meeting, such as economic and healthcare disparities, cross-cultural caregiving and family and intergenerational relations
Perhaps the most illuminating discussion at the conference was on the shifting role of the aging population. Seniors no longer see themselves as passive retirees whose focus is on enjoying their golden years separate from the society. That stereotype is often seen by some as a resource drain on the economy.
In his book Aging in the Right Place (Health Professions Press, 2015) University of Florida, Gainesville, researcher Stephen Golant, said a the conference that many older adults are neither merely relying on their family members or professionals, nor simply aging in their homes with little or no assistance. Instead, many are forming local support groups and networks to help them with easier access to health care and social services.
Around the country, nonprofits like organizations in the Village to Village Network have sprung up. The nearly 200 Villages around the country help their member senior access affordable services, such as transportation, health and wellness programs and home repairs.
Other groups at GSA’s program are advocating for senior rights and supporting a wide range of efforts, such as designing more desirable “age friendly” community settings to age in, conserving the environment, and enabling elders to continue being productive contributors in society through paid and volunteer work.
These ideas and developments exemplify how culture, family, friends and colleagues interact with environments that are better designed for living with dignity as we age.
These goals also reflect values Arab Americans have brought with them from their motherlands, where they have been practiced for millennia. As professor Kristine Ajrouch emphasized, increased health research on Arab Americans is not only important, but it may offer unique insights that could be valuable to the preparation of caring for the aging population.
Julian Do wrote this article for Al Enteshar with support from a Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, and sponsored by The SCAN Foundation.