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Aging: A Global Perspective

Debbie Pitner Moors
April 18, 2018

According to a 2016 report of the National Institutes of Health, "America's 60-and-over population is projected to nearly double over the next three decades, from 48 million to 99 million by 2050." Globally, 8.5 percent of people (617 million) are aged 65 and over...this percentage is projected to jump to nearly 17 percent of the world's population by 2050 (1.6 billion)."

With such a dramatic change in demographics, the need for health care, transportation, financial support and housing for older residents is rising globally. How well prepared are countries around the world and how do people within those populations feel about the aging experience?

These are questions that Nancy Karlin, Ph.D., professor of psychological sciences and Joyce Weil, Ph.D. MPJ. CPG, associate professor of gerontology explore through their research on perceptions of aging in a global context. 

They've gathered information from participants residing in the United States, Italy, Tunisia, Botswana, South Africa, Japan, Thailand and Saudi Arabia, with interviews from 324 subjects. 

From the beginning of their research, they reached out to academic partners in each country to help them revise questions based on cultural appropriateness.  

"There has always been someone who would retranslate or make an introduction," Karlin says. 

Many interviews were gathered through international students and their connections in those countries. 

"They're really integrated into our team," Weil says. 

Akiko Watabe, a Japanese students who is working on her doctorate at UNC in Educational Psychology, has contributed to Karlin's and Weil's research by exploring the role of the interviewer when interviewing older adults in Japan. 

"Culturally I respect the older people and also, I used more polite language," Watabe says. But while conducting interviews, she discovered how stigmatized some topics (like needing financial assistance) were, and she learned more about how to be careful asking culturally specific questions. 

"When I asked some questions, elderly people asked me what other people interviewed said. Instead of giving their own response, they wanted to give the appropriate response," she says. 

With a network of scholars, and an engaged group of graduate students like Watabe, Karlin and Weil have published a number of studies about perceptions of aging. 

In 2016, they published "Healthy Aging in a Global Context: Comparing Six Countries." They interviewed 238 older adults on perceived socio-demographic and economic conditions, asking about social support, resources, activities, economic status and financial support. Respondents crossed the spectrum from rural to urban, and answered questions about what they liked or disliked about their current age, what they were looking forward to, and their advice to young people. Perceptions of aging clearly differ from one culture to the next. For example, in the U.S., the highest ranked response when asked about advice for young people was to enjoy their lives and achieve their goals. 

In the article's conclusion, Karlin and Weil state that Italian older adults are "growing in numbers, but need more services that can support active/healthy aging." In the U.S.,  adults surveyed were on average happier, with some sort of pension and private health insurance but, paradoxically "65 percent stated no social support was available to them in a time of need." 

The extreme shift in global aging has far-reaching implications — not only for older adults, but also for the generations that follow. From infrastructure to caregiving, Karlin and Weil will agree that countries need to be prepared, and to plan. "If you're not planning for older adults now you're not planning for the lives of the younger generation tomorrow," says Karlin. 

And, with a deeper understanding of how older adults feeling about aging, and what they may need to be healthy and engaged as the age, global leaders must make informed decisions about changes that will affect people now and far into the future. The research team is currently collecting data from older adults residing in China, the team's ninth nation.