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Creating an ‘age-friendly’ future

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Sara Miller Llana :
(From previous issue)
The "graffiti grannies" have not stopped with spray paint. After shopkeepers denied an older man who uses a wheelchair access to the bathroom - he ended up wetting himself - the group launched the "Caught Short" campaign. Some of them in their 80s, they knocked on dozens of shop doors and asked who would say "no" next time. Then they published and handed out a leaflet, essentially a "where-to-go" guide, complete with information about wheelchair accessibility.
"These are tiny little things," says Natalie Turner, senior program manager for Localities at the Center for Aging Better in London. "But it makes a big difference. It is the difference between having people [get] out, and having to stay home."
Ms. Turner says one reason to adopt an "age-friendly" approach is that it respects older people's rights, and the benefits are clear for seniors. John Johnson says that being part of the graffiti crew has kept loneliness at bay. "Some people carry on ... [when they age], or go below. Others rise above. For me, getting older has brought me back to life," he says.
But "age friendliness" also benefits society as a whole, when governments and residents start focusing on the upside. Some companies are looking at ways to employ older people longer, utilizing their knowledge as they keep economies productive. Others are focusing on older people as a market opportunity.
If older people do not find it easier to engage in their communities and stay active, they will end up more dependent, and more expensive, argues Turner. "We need to keep them employed, volunteering, caregiving," she adds. "We need them." Developed Western countries are focusing mostly on aging cities. The government in China is more concerned by an aging countryside.
On a cold, foggy morning in Yanjing, a sleepy village on the outskirts of Shanghai, Fei Quying takes her place in front of 20 other widows and retirees for their morning exercise dance.
The sprightly 75-year-old smiles as she leads the others through choreographed arm swings and hip sways, set to "If You're Happy and You Know It" sung in Chinese. The song plays over and over for 15 minutes from a nearby speaker.
It's a lively scene for a community that not long ago seemed to be coming apart. Many of its young people had left to find work in the city, and homes had been abandoned.
"It was really sad," says Ms. Fei, who has lived in the same house for 66 years. "Now this place brings old people together. It makes me much happier."
"This place" is Happy Elder House, a 49-bed nursing home fashioned from 10 empty buildings and newly equipped with handrails and wheelchair ramps, a cafeteria, and a community center. Retirement homes, standard in the West, are revolutionary in China, where the millenniums-old tradition of filial piety makes caring for one's parents an essential duty.
But as more and more young people seek jobs in the city, far from their parents' homes, ancient traditions are eroding, however hard the authorities try to bolster them. (A village in Sichuan province has taken to naming and shaming children neglectful of their parents by plastering their faces on billboards.)
"Society is changing," says Peng Xizhe, a professor of population and development at Fudan University in Shanghai. "On the one hand, it's important to maintain the ... traditional arrangement for elderly support. But on the other hand, we have to find new ways of dealing with this."
China has the most elderly people of any country in the world. More than 220 million people, or 16 percent of its population, are 60 or older. Demographers predict their numbers will rise to 490 million by 2050.
Who will look after them? Faraway children will never be able to provide their parents with daily care, points out Du Peng, director of the Center of Aging Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing. He says society as a whole must work to fill the gaps.
"We will have more and more old people who need long-term care, especially in rural areas," he says. "Local communities are the best places to provide the support they need."
Back in Yanjing Village, Chen Guoqiang agrees. He has taken time off from his government job, a 40-minute drive away, to run errands and visit his father at the Happy Elder House.
"I have one child, a daughter. I don't want her to have to take care of me," Mr. Chen says. "I want to come here when I get older." You wouldn't catch 85-year-old Rasmiya Mohammed, who lives in Baghdad, saying she did not want her daughter Hanaa to look after her.
War is never far from Hanaa Ghazi's doorstep. The night before a recent visit, two bodies were found on a street near her Baghdad home. Days earlier, two children were kidnapped.
But Hanaa, a mother of three, has an even more immediate concern. She and her husband, Jafar, are caring for her bed-ridden mother, paying her high medical bills and making her comfortable. "Even with all the difficulties, we will not let her down," says Hanaa. "She is above everything. She is our top priority." And Ms. Mohammed, beaming from her bed in the living room with her 7-year-old grandson, Fadl, sitting happily by her side, knows how fortunate she is. "Thank God, everyone here loves me and takes care of me," she says, wiping away a tear. "Many people, when they become very old, become humiliated or insulted by their family, who don't care. I am lucky.... Even the small boys take care, and kiss me."
The Quran requires Muslims to care wholeheartedly for their aging parents, and in Iraq and many other Mideast countries such support is a cultural norm as well as a religious obligation, with three generations often living under one roof.
But the stress of three decades of perennial crises has shredded Iraq's social fabric. "Because of the wars, people have not thrown out their values, but there is a storm of dust covering all these values," says Ena'am al-Badri, a sociologist and director of the Al-Selaikh Elderly Home, one of only two such state-run homes in Baghdad.
"The sanctions, the wars, and the violence don't give us time to educate our sons in good ways," adds Leila Abdul-Hossein Hamza, director of the private Mercy Home for the Elderly, a charitable organization with an adjacent orphanage run by Shiite cleric Ayatollah Hussein Sadr.
Kadriyah Saleh, 75, a resident of the Mercy Home dressed in the black shroud favored by devout Shiite Iraqis, has suffered the effects of such violent social dislocation. "I feel shame when I mention my son," she says, recounting how he was an interpreter for US forces, and then left for America in 2005.
"I never heard from him again," says Ms. Saleh. "He never said goodbye. He could have come." Neither of her two daughters visits her, either.
She says she now feels cared for and doesn't "feel like a stranger here ­- thank God for that." And if there were no Mercy Home, which provides free care and a bed? Her answer is emphatic: "I would be on the street."
Residential homes for older people are rare in Iraq, but they are attracting attention as symbolic green shoots of social responsibility, says Ms. Badri. Schools send their pupils to her state-run home to learn "how to care for people," she adds. Even graduation parties have been held at the home "to support us. This is a big message for everyone."
"There are signs of hope," she adds. "There is a kind of uprising inside people. There are still many people trying to recover from their wounds, and people started thinking of how to heal society again. So people are rising up to face this."
Still, most Iraqi families care for their parents themselves, despite the challenges. Hanaa spends half the salary she earns as a medical service worker to buy medicine for her mother. War prevented the family from sending her to a decent doctor years ago. International sanctions kept them from sending her abroad for treatment. Today, conflict right outside their door is again testing their ability to cope.
"There is big fear when we see all these things, bodies and explosions," says Jafar. But his mother-in-law, he adds, is "a good omen for us. When I see her, it is like a blessing for the house and good things come to us."
Novusumzi Masala is certainly a blessing to the houseful of kids she looks after in Soweto.
Africa's challenge at the moment is less figuring out how to care for its older people, such as Ms. Masala, than thinking through what to do with its young people. And the elderly are playing a key role in shaping the next generation's future.
"There's often a perception that older people are vulnerable, frail, and irrelevant to what happens to young people, but we know that in reality the lives of older and younger people are closely linked - there is a skills and knowledge transfer there that needs to happen for society to function," says Isabella Aboderin, a senior research scientist at the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi, Kenya.
Sub-Saharan Africa is, by global standards, a dramatically young region. Sixty percent of its population is under 25, and there are nearly 13 people on the continent between the ages of 20 and 64 for every one person over 65 - more than three times the European ratio. In South Africa the bonds between young and old often revolve around orphans. There are nearly 4 million of them, half of whom lost their parents to AIDS. Continent-wide, UNICEF estimates that half of Africa's 132 million orphans live with their grandparents.
For Joey Monane, who runs a Soweto-based youth organization called Ikusasa Lethu ("Tomorrow is ours"), that link is an essential one, and he has come to consider providing support to older caregivers in his community an essential part of his work to support the young people who are living with them.
(Sara Miller Llana is the Monitor's European Bureau Chief based in Paris. Prior to this posting, which began in April 2013, she covered Latin America for the paper, from Mexico City, for seven years. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a BA in history from the University of Michigan).

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