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Creating an ‘age-friendly’ future

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08th-Jan-2017       
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Sara Miller Llana :
January 2, 2017 Manchester, England-A new graffiti crew, clutching canisters of green spray paint, is roaming the streets of Levenshulme, but they are not tagging walls. Instead, the "graffiti grannies" - a group of activist pensioners - in this postindustrial suburb of Manchester, England, mark every hole in the sidewalk that could trip them up, challenging the city council to bring in the pavers. As players in a growing "age-friendly" movement, they are part of a revolution in the ways that cities are adapting to their rapidly aging populations.
Across the English Channel in the Netherlands, Harry TerBraak isn't about to conform to any age stereotypes. He is 90, a resident of a small-town nursing home that also houses students seeking a rent-free room, and he doesn't blink at being greeted as "dude" with a fist bump by his younger housemates. In an intergenerational experiment gaining traction across the West, old and young are learning from each other, re-creating a way of life that was once the natural order.
And in South Africa, Novusumzi Masala is simply focusing on the job in front of her as the caregiver for 13 grandchildren. In fact, her life consists of 13 of everything - 13 pairs of battered shoes scattered around her tiny two-bedroom house, 13 bowls stacked high above her sink. In Soweto, where the "youth bulge" is the real demographic challenge, grandparents like Ms. Masala, age 78, are rising to the occasion to cope with it.
The demographic shifts under way across the globe are unprecedented. Experts like Paul Irving, the chairman of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute in California, says the trend lines resemble a hockey stick: Life spans were flat throughout human history until they shot straight up in the past century.
By 2020, for the first time, there will be more people on earth age 60 or older than under age 5. By midcentury, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 2 billion people - 22 percent of the global population - will be 60 or older, up from 900 million today.
In almost every country in the world, average ages are rising fast, putting pressure on city councils, health-care systems, and national economies. Japan, where 33 percent of the population is already over 60, is the world's oldest nation, while Europe and the United States are quickly catching up.
How do the events of World War I still affect us today? Take our quiz. Yet it is in developing countries, from Chile to China to Iran, where the rates of aging are the fastest today, often adding a new dimension to existing social conflicts and poverty. "Global aging, along with climate change, may be the great challenge of this century," says Mr. Irving. "Unless policies and practices and norms and culture are changed, we have a tremendous problem, and if they are changed we have a remarkable opportunity."
The key to the future, he says, is "purposeful aging" that empowers older people themselves as the agents of change. "Purposeful aging recognizes that people who age with purpose - this sense of meaning, direction, and desire to contribute - don't just help others, they help themselves as well."
Cities are on the front lines of these shifts, as people worldwide flee the countryside. In the world's richest nations, older populations are expanding today more quickly in cities than anywhere else, with metropolises already home to 43.2 percent of those over 65. That prompted the WHO to launch a network of "age-friendly" cities in 2010 with about a dozen affiliates; since then about 320 communities have signed up to rethink their urban designs and social environments.
"Around the world populations are aging, more people are living in cities, and these are accompanied by other demographic changes - increased women in the workforce, migration towards cities and hence children living away from their parents. All of these demographic changes have huge implications for cities and communities," says Alana Officer, senior health adviser at the WHO.
Manchester, in the north of England, has in recent years been best known for its postindustrial makeover, which has drawn the young and hip. But at the same time it has been leading the way in rethinking the city for its senior citizens, and garnering worldwide attention - especially for relying on seniors themselves to effect change.
In Manchester, older people are volunteers and cultural champions. They oversee urban planning and sit on an advisory board that examines city policies through the eyes of senior citizens. "Having older adults in decisionmaking roles ... means the community is able to draw on their skills and experience," says Ms. Officer. As their residents grow older, city governments are clearly going to have to undertake major long-term overhauls in housing and transport, for example. But a lot of what makes cities "age-friendly" today is micro. It can be as simple as rallying shopkeepers to set a chair outside a storefront, or spray-painting around a pothole.
 (To be continued)

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