…Sang the famous Spanish singer-songwriter Joaquín Sabina in 1992, “do not try the liqueurs of pleasure, build muscles from five to six, and watch your cholesterol.” Beyond his ironic lyrics about the exaggerated obsession with finding the elixir to prolong life, Sabina’s song alluded to a new reality: the increase in life expectancy and the implications that entails.
For the first time in history, most people can aspire to live 60 years or more. This reality is accompanied by another that is becoming more worrisome every day: the population is aging at a rapid pace as a result of this longer life expectancy and the significant declines in fertility rates. One does not need to review the World Health Organization (WHO)‘s report on aging to verify this, suffice it to look around us.
Overview of Aging
To put it in context, the population over 60 years old today accounts for:
- One quarter of the population in Europe
- A fifth of the population in the United States
- 16 percent of the population in East Asia
- 11 percent of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean.
While in the latter region the figures are still not high enough to speak of an aging population, the unprecedented growth in the number of older adults in these countries is setting off alarms.
Consider the following:
- In 2030 the population over 60 years old in Latin America and the Caribbean will represent 17 percent of the total
- By 2050 it is estimated that that share will reach 25 percent.
In other words, it will only take 33 years for the population in Latin America and the Caribbean to increase from 11 to 25 percent of the total. It took Europe 65 years to reach the same demographic change.
Aging implies a greater risk of contracting certain diseases, and reduced physical and mental capacity, which may result in the need to receive external help to perform daily functions. The older you are, the more likely you are to be dependent on others for daily care. A report recently published by the IDB, “Panorama on Aging and Long-term Care,” reports that in Latin America and the Caribbean almost 8 million persons over 60 are dependent. This figure represents 11 percent of the region’s older population, which will experience a rapid escalation if the pace of the current demographic transition continues.
A person is in a situation of dependency when he or she is not able to independently carry out at least one activity of daily living such as eating, washing, bathing, or dressing. Along with these actions necessary for an independent life, other day-to-day instrumental activities that involve greater complexity and, in general, some interaction with the environment, are also taken into consideration. While these latter activities are important for a full and independent life, they are not considered essential to survive. Examples include cooking, doing housework, handling money, taking medications, or talking on the phone.
In general, given their greater complexity, the latter activities are the first to deteriorate. For example, older adults are expected to lose their ability to dress before they lose their ability to eat.
…And It Is Getting Worse
The intensity of dependency is also increasing. The older the age, the greater the number of activities for which a person may need help. In many Latin American and Caribbean countries, the percentage of people facing difficulties in three or more of these activities increases exponentially after the age of 80.
Another factor highlighted in the IDB report is gender vulnerability in old age: in all countries, the intensity of dependency is greater among women. In addition, there are remarkable differences between countries: while Costa Rica, Chile, and Mexico stand out for their high proportion of dependence among older adults, in Uruguay and Paraguay that proportion is relatively low.
How to Digest These Trends?
Assuming that dependency rates remain constant in each age group, the demographic evolution of Latin America and the Caribbean will cause the number of dependents to triple by 2050, exceeding 26 million people. This reality will bring with it a growing demand for both health services and care that will undoubtedly generate pressures on governments, which in most cases are poorly prepared. Therefore, governments must anticipate the scenario that is coming. We know that aging is a matter of time, so there is no time to waste.
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