For most of us, the mere mention of Rio de Janeiro conjures up images of youthful, well-sculpted bodies tanning half naked on the beach. But these days you might be as likely to find shirtless or bikini-clad older folks basking in the sun or building their muscles with boardwalk gym equipment. Thanks to medical, nutritional and technological progress, people all over the world are living longer, but what about better?
By the year 2050, nearly a quarter of the world population will be urban dwellers over the age of 60. Cities like Rio are working to accommodate them with “age-friendly” features such as outdoor gyms, public picnic tables and benches, wheelchair-friendly paths, and even daycare facilities where seniors can socialize, play cards, sing in a choir, and get regular medical checkups
Many of these ideas came from a 2005 World Health Organization study aimed at making urban structures and services more accessible and inclusive to the changing needs of older adults in Rio. The investigation went global, and in 2007, it led W.H.O. to develop a series of recommendations called Global Age-friendly Cities: A Guide, as well as a network of 100 million people in cities and communities in 28 countries.
“We have to rethink what older people can and will do in human society. It forces us to rethink the idea of people dying at a certain age or retiring at a certain age or becoming inactive so that we have the best use of everyone in society at all ages,” says Louise Plouffe, one of the masterminds of WHO’s Age-friendly Cities initiative. She serves as the Director of Research at the International Longevity Centre in Ottawa, Canada, and previously worked at its affiliate in Rio.
Brazil is really pressed to answer these questions. Most Brazilians are retiring in their 50s, and the W.H.O. reports that Brazil has the sixth largest population of people over 60. Over the past decades, Brazil’s pension system was seen as more successful than some emerging and developing economies because it was able to provide coverage to informal sector workers like housekeepers and nannies, and created a safety net for the poorest of the poor who, at a minimum, were paying sales tax. It has also bolstered household incomes since most older Brazilians still reside with extended families.
But according to the Inter-American Development Bank, Brazil already spends the same portion of its gross domestic product on pensions as European countries, even though it has a much younger population. So how can it do that going forward as the number of retirees grows and the working population shrinks?
While Age-friendly Cities is an initiative largely taken up state and municipal governments, the Brazilian government has linked it to its own Statute for Older Persons. That should help policymakers consider how to balance their public budgets and enhance social services across generations. For example, older people could be encouraged to work at least part time up until they no longer have the capacity to do so, especially with financial incentives for public service. They might even volunteer to be mentors and caretakers at neighborhood centers for at-risk youth or at integrated child and adult daycare centers.
Similar programs are taking root in the United States, where the Age-friendly Cities initiatives are studied and monitored by the non-profit lobbying group American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).
One of the biggest dilemmas for baby boomers is where to find affordable housing. In Ratoul, Illinois, a former military base now hosts Hope Meadows, a foster community for kids in the care of child protective services. Elderly people pay reduced rent in exchange for assisting these children and their foster families. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of adults in the so-called “sandwich generation,” are dropping both their young children and aging parents at “integrational” (intergenerational) daycare centers.
With careful planning to respect the dignity and autonomy of older adults, these programs can be mutually beneficial. In fact, the Washington, DC-advocacy group Generations United reports that older people who feel engaged in the general community have better emotional, mental and physical health than those in traditional elder facilities. Meanwhile children enjoy more one-on-one attention while developing positive attitudes toward elders, who are often referred to as “neighbors.”
Like it or not, we’re all getting older –maybe a lot older– so educators, policymakers and the mass media should be focusing more on solutions for these demographic shifts. Thankfully, some generations already get that. During our 20s, Gen-Xers like myself were conditioned to worry more about the onset of saggy skin than how to make ends meet in the golden years. As millennials in developed and emerging countries face the very real possibility of living past 100, it’s not surprising many are diligently filling their retirement accounts and checking the interest on smart-phone apps.
Whatever your age or socio-economic status, it might be wise to initiate an age-friendly ideas chat the next time you share a park bench with a “neighbor.”
*Julienne Gage is an American anthropologist and multimedia journalist working in the IDB’s Department of External Relations. She has investigated aging in Kenya, Haiti, Brazil, Spain, and in popular American retirement destinations like Miami.