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Successful Aging: Seeking a global perspective on aging

Dear readers,

I recently returned from a trip to Paris where I had the opportunity to spend time with my colleague Moira Allan, co-founder with Jan Hively of the Pass it On global network. It’s made up of older adults who believe the work of elders is to “pass it on” – sharing know-how with others, capitalizing on what works and shaping positive expectations for meaningful work and life-long learning. This all begins with connecting advocates with one another, and that’s what Allan and her colleagues are doing. The network includes thought leaders from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. Country liaisons handle all exchanges in English, French, Russian, Tamil and Afrikaans.

I was interested in Allan’s perspective of successful and positive aging and her experience and perception of what was happening. Our conversation was at a lovely outdoor café with a cappuccino for me and coffee crème for Moira. (I had my freshly baked croissant earlier in the morning.)

Here are a few points from our conversation:

Getting older in Paris is a privilege, particularly because pensions support reasonable living even though most people always want more. Also, since 2010, work is an option until age 70; one also can collect a pension while employed. Allan also considers aging in Paris a privilege because of its resources. An example is the group OLD’Up; its goal is to give a sense of usefulness and purpose to longevity while adapting to a rapidly changing society.

The organization sponsors many workshops on topics such as family relations, the difficulty of aging, the spiritual meaning of life, mindfulness through meditation and a writer’s workshop. There are support groups offered for those in their 70s, 80s and 90s. The association emphasizes digital learning, particularly for 90-year-olds, a group often overlooked. Young people are engaged to teach them how to use a tablet, so they can be part of the digital world. OLD’Up is spreading to other areas in France.

Allan observed that aging institutions, older-adult experiences and policies are operating as silos and are not effectively coordinated globally. She gave the example of a woman diagnosed with dementia that affected her speech. With extensive speech therapy, she overcame the limitation. Allan noted that her speech sounded normal. Although this may be an exception, Allan’s point is that such experiences must be shared to let dementia victims know there can be hope and institutions to know the possibilities. At issue is not the lack of policies or even services. What is missing is connecting older adults to what we know and what services exist.

On the plus side, she noted that in the 12 years she has been involved in aging, she has observed a new attitude towards retirement. It’s not the end of life. Older adults have a role to play in a society as we confront issues of poverty, climate change, starvation, nuclear threats and more. For example, she suggests that older adults could be trained in disaster prevention. They may not be able to be on the frontline but could be useful in taking care of children who are affected by the disaster.

Then there is the concept of “positive aging,” which we think of only on our terms. The concept of positive aging may apply to Europe and North America, but in many other parts of the world older adults are challenged just to survive.

Scandinavian countries, in particular, are leading in many areas of aging, as they are well financed and organized. One example is Denmark, a country that leads in co-housing living arrangements. Families or individuals have separate living quarters and share a kitchen, laundry facilities and outdoor tools and play equipment. Such living arrangements prevent social isolation. Co-housing also exists in the U.S.

“We are the (global) witnesses and actors in this longevity revolution, with different experiences that must be fed into something bigger to change attitudes and perceptions of aging,” says Allan.

I fully agree!

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