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Creating Opportunity for Older Adults to Flourish

Kevyn Burger May 21, 2018

At Stria, we believe that listening is critical to learning. We ask five questions of Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging.

Paul is also chairman of the board of encore.org and a distinguished scholar at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology. He is in demand as a speaker at global conferences on aging. He is frequently sought out by the media to address how institutions are adapting to the needs of older adults.

A former corporate lawyer and law firm CEO, Paul is living out what he’s encouraged other people to do by finding his own encore career. “My wife jokes that my encore career is more intense than my primary career was,” he said.

When it comes to growing older, what do you think Americans care about most?

Two issues I consistently hear about are health security and wealth security. These are easy-to-understand issues that most of us can relate to—but the solutions are complicated.

Older people want to remain healthy as long as possible while not being burdened by the cost of care. They’re concerned about their needs later in life and their obligation as caregivers. While they’re inclined to work longer for additional financial security—and also for the stimulation and challenge of ongoing engagement—too many don’t have adequate savings and are one paycheck away from disaster.

If you could change one thing about aging in America, what would it be?

We need to confront ageism; that touches all the things I work on, all the things I’d like to see change. Because of ageism, we underinvest in medical research on older people and their health and wellness, as well as in retraining and lifelong learning. Many older adults also lack opportunities for work due to attitudes about their capability and competence.

Older adults come with a range of skills and talents like young people. If we viewed them as we should be—not as a burden, but maybe as our greatest natural resource—we would see the human capital as an asset. We would take better advantage of their wisdom and experience.

What aspect of your work makes you feel the most optimistic about aging in America?

The reality of demographic change. We are going to be a country and world of older people, and I see new ideas coming forward. Policy makers and business leaders talk about how to capitalize on the aging workforce, designers are thinking about better products and services for them.

I’m optimistic that we can make adaptations that will create positives that will last for generations.

What keeps you up at night?

What’s really troubling is the increasing disparity we see across the aging community. Older adults are not a homogeneous group.

We see a social divide where some are blessed with education and opportunity. They live in safe walkable neighborhoods and shop at stores with plentiful healthy alternatives. In places with less opportunity and different social determinants, it’s a very different story. They have worries about adequate housing, transportation, access to health care and healthy food.

We need a national conversation about what we owe each other—not just within our own families, but more broadly. We cherish the narrative that we share American values, core common beliefs. But we must talk about whether we also share a value about having an obligation is to our fellow citizens and whether we are willing to leave people behind.

What’s at stake in preparing for the future needs of the aging society?

We have to put our foot on the gas and accelerate the changes.

If we continue to go down the road we’re on, we run the risk of dealing with a population that is sick, less engaged, less productive.

The other road is to change retirement norms, enable people to keep learning and invest in their wellness. That vision creates an opportunity for the older demographic to flourish.

It’s a global challenge. Will older adults across the world impede economic growth and be a societal burden because their health problems are unbearable? Or will we collectively figure out a way to keep them healthier, engaged—and build a longevity economy that will be an engine of growth?

Do you know someone who’s insight can help inspire new thinking across the longevity market? Send us your ideas for future Q&A?
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Kevyn Burger

Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and broadcast producer. She was named a 2018 Journalist in Aging Fellow by the Gerontological Society of America. Based in Minneapolis, Kevyn is the mother of three young adults and one rescue terrier.

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