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Around the World, New Solutions to Fight Poverty in Aging

‘Reducing disparities of old age should also start as early as possible,’ EU expert says

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In Mexico, they’re teaching Indigenous artisans how to sell their textiles and crafts online. In Ethiopia and Colombia, they’re experimenting with new ways to provide health care services to residents in rural communities. In Bangladesh and Ecuador, they’re using targeted cash transfers to help older widows and others avoid poverty when they are unable to earn income.

Around the globe, governments and other policymakers are exploring solutions to prevent older adults from living in poverty or otherwise being shut out of society, according to the Aging Readiness & Competitiveness Report 4.0 from AARP International.

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According to the research, only 54 percent of countries globally have national policies, strategies and plans that account for healthy aging among their full population, and only 31 percent have national policies in place to fully assess the health and social care needs of older adults.

This month, in coordination with the release of the report, AARP and Meridian — a nonprofit focused on diplomacy and leadership as solutions to global problems — held a conference to discuss how to fight inequalities in aging and longevity. Dubravka Šuica, vice president for democracy and demography for the European Commission, was the keynote speaker at that event. She spoke with AARP about addressing disparities in aging globally. The following excerpts have been edited and condensed for clarity.

In many countries, older adults are becoming a larger share of the population. For example, in 2018, for the first time in history, people age 65 and over outnumbered those under 5 years old.

What steps can nations with developed economies, such as the United States and many European countries, do to benefit from this shift? What steps could less-developed countries take to prepare for their older populations?

Šuica: Policymakers have the responsibility to design policies which ensure that we are prepared for this new reality and that the welfare and health care systems are able to cater for the increasing numbers of older people. This means addressing discrimination toward older people, in the workplace and in access to services, including digital services.

I am also talking about preventing the biggest drain occurring every year: retirement and the [subsequent] withdrawal from the labor market of some of the most experienced and knowledgeable workers. This is a phenomenon that affects low- and middle-income countries but also developed countries, but less so in the United States where there is no mandatory retirement age at the federal level. I am very interested in this flexibility offered in choosing when to retire. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from it.

Beyond fighting discrimination and making our labor market rules more flexible, we should also ensure that we deploy digital solutions in our [health care and caregiving] systems and rely more on technology and artificial intelligence, as along with aging, there is also a lack of workers in the [health care and caregiving] sector. For this to be successful, we have to support private enterprises delivering solutions tailored to older people’s needs. This is true also for low- and middle-income countries where start-ups with knowledge of local needs can provide unique and valuable solutions.

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Inequalities often can accumulate throughout a person’s life. Reducing the inequities that older adults experience might require efforts to ease disparities people encounter when they are young.

What are some examples of interventions or other practices that you have come across in your work that show how nations can address inequalities earlier to prevent inequities when people get older?

Šuica: I usually say we are all aging from the day we are born, and reducing disparities of old age should also start as early as possible. Good examples include ensuring proper nutrition and healthy eating at schools for all children. They also include promoting exercise and healthy lifestyles. This includes making engaging in sports accessible and affordable for all.

In the workplace, the gender pension gap between men and women persists across the globe. Women earn lower salaries and frequently do not have the possibility to work as many hours, accumulating lower pensions over time. This is also true due to their responsibilities as caregivers, both when taking care of children and older members of their families. In the EU (European Union), there are 17 million women caregivers and only 450,000 men in the same roles. This leads to significant inequalities as women’s careers are often adversely impacted.

The European Commission has recognized this issue and under my leadership proposed a care package which is intended to provide appropriate and affordable [caregiving] facilities. One important result of this will be that more women who are held back by informal care responsibilities will be able to enter or return to the labor market. So, in this case, we are talking about investments in infrastructure and facilities done by countries but also at local levels since kindergartens and childcare facilities are often financed from local budgets.

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In some nations, lack of access to high-speed internet, health care and other services in rural parts of the country can limit opportunities for older adults to work or live as fully as they might choose.

Why is it important for nations to ensure that rural communities have equal access to the technology and other services available in urban communities?

Šuica: While rural areas account for 80 percent of the EU’s territory, only one-third of our people live in rural areas. This means that the business case for providing services to these areas is rather weak when seeking to attract private investment. It is much more profitable to provide broadband internet in urban areas, where one fiber-optic line can serve many more clients than in rural areas.

This is where [government and policymakers] need to step in and provide incentives to ensure that the rural areas are connected. Because in today’s world, digital connectivity is key. It is needed for access to financial services, making appointments, access to information and new ideas, as well as education. Even health care, where various simple or basic services can be offered remotely. Without broadband internet, the rural-urban divide will only widen.

In the EU, we are committed to connecting all rural communities and providing broadband internet to all of our rural areas. We are providing financing through different funds, including rural development funds and cohesion policy funds. We are also supporting local start-ups in providing innovative solutions for connectivity that don’t always have to require large infrastructural investments.

Ultimately, this will also benefit the older members of our communities, because when younger people leave rural areas, they are the ones left behind. Their well-being demands that we address these issues in a comprehensive manner.

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