Healthy aging for women key to realizing longevity dividend
Updated 19:18, 29-Mar-2023
Justine Coulson

Healthy aging for women key to realizing longevity dividend.mp3


Editor's note: Decision Makers is a global platform for decision makers to share their insights on events shaping today's world. Justine Coulson, the representative of the United Nations Population Fund in China, recently sat down for an exclusive interview with Decision Makers and penned an article on how to turn the challenge of demographic transition into a valuable opportunity. The views expressed in the video and the article are her own and not necessarily those of CGTN.

The Boao Forum for Asia is going to hold its annual conference in Hainan under the theme "An Uncertain World: Solidarity and Cooperation for Development amid Challenges," where key topics such as "development and inclusiveness" and "the present and the future" are discussed. As Asia's major economies are collectively experiencing an unprecedented demographic transition, preparing for a rapidly aging population at present is crucial for building a better future.

In the Asia Pacific, the fastest aging region in the world, one in four people will be aged over 60 by 2050. This demographic transition is a testament to the positive gains in socio-economic development that have enabled many people to reach old age healthier, wealthier and better educated than previous generations. Research has shown that in developed economies, rather than presenting an economic burden to societies, longer life expectancy can lead to greater productivity if the right investments are made. When governments invest in a range of measures enabling positive aging, such as supporting employment beyond 50 for those who want to continue working, addressing ageism in societies and supporting healthy aging, economies can realize a longevity dividend.

The United Nations recognizes the right of older people to be both active participants in the development of their societies as well as beneficiaries. Older people can make significant social and economic contributions to society through paid work, as community volunteers, and in family care roles. At the same time, active participation in social, economic and volunteering activities and lifelong learning supports the individual growth and well-being of older people.

However, living longer doesn't necessarily mean living well and many older people do not enjoy the level of health needed to experience positive aging. For example, life expectancy at birth in the European Union is estimated at 80.9 years but healthy life year expectancy is estimated at only 64 years. For older people to play an active and fulfilling role in their communities and economies, they need to be able to maintain good health for as long as possible, and governments need to prioritize investment in healthy aging.

Supporting healthy aging is especially important for women. Globally, in 2017, women accounted for 54 percent of the population aged 60 years or older and 61 percent of those aged 80 years or older. However, despite benefiting from added years of life, most women are neither well enough nor financially independent enough to enjoy these years. Data from Europe, the U.S. and China show that women over 50 experience poorer health than men, and women with lower levels of education are even more negatively affected.

Gender disparities in healthy aging are often due to a lifetime of gender inequality and discrimination. Higher income is related to better health, yet many women reach old age poorer due to time away from paid work to bring up children and lack of equal opportunities in the labor market, resulting in lower savings and contributory pension benefits when they retire. They are more likely to work in the informal sector and, therefore, lack social protection and face income insecurity. As women enter their 50s, they are particularly vulnerable to loss of work due the automation of jobs and early retirement due to poor health and the need to provide unpaid care to family members.

Two elderly women chat with each other while making paper-cuts at a care center for the elderly in Huangjiayu Village, Rizhao, east China's Shandong Province, February 27, 2022. /Xinhua
Two elderly women chat with each other while making paper-cuts at a care center for the elderly in Huangjiayu Village, Rizhao, east China's Shandong Province, February 27, 2022. /Xinhua

Two elderly women chat with each other while making paper-cuts at a care center for the elderly in Huangjiayu Village, Rizhao, east China's Shandong Province, February 27, 2022. /Xinhua

To address the rights of older women and to support their healthy aging, the United Nations Population Fund advocates for governments to adopt a life cycle approach. This recognizes that a person's level of health and well-being in old age is determined by a series of lifetime events. Building the resilience of younger women now through investments in education, health and employment will enable them to maximize their social and economic potential over their life to age well. For example, an investment in adolescent health information and services helps teenage girls to adopt positive health behaviors and avoid negative outcomes, such as unintended pregnancies. Investment in affordable, quality sexual and reproductive health services and family support policies in the workplace help women to give birth safely, when and if they wish to have children, and, at the same time, maintain their careers whilst bringing up children, enabling them to reach old age with greater financial assets.

But what of the needs of older women today? How can we improve their wellbeing now? Some countries have introduced policies to support the retention of older workers through age-friendly and flexible employment opportunities. For example, South Korea has introduced the government-subsidized "Senior Internship Program" to promote the employment of older people and the "Age-Friendly Enterprises Program" which financially supports companies to increase their competitiveness through the insights of older people. Such initiatives can be specifically designed to address the barriers older women face in accessing formal employment.

For those older women engaged in unpaid care, financial support to family caregivers can relieve some of the economic burden. In the Netherlands, people who previously provided unpaid care to family members at home are now formally recognized and are paid at a certain proportion of the cost of institutional care. For those older women struggling with the affordability of their own care needs, Malaysia's Time Bank Volunteering Scheme offers participants credits for the time spent providing ad-hoc daily care to older people which they can redeem for goods and services.

Even for those aging well, healthcare needs increase with age. Where public healthcare expenditure is low and national health insurance covers only a small percentage of costs, older people are at risk of not being able to afford the high out-of-pocket expenditures. To support healthy aging, universal health coverage needs to address the specific barriers older people face in enjoying their right to health, from prevention through treatment to long-term and end-of-life care.

Finally, to support healthy aging in older women, governments need to address the rise of social isolation among older people which is a major contributor to their poor health; those who feel socially isolated or lonely are at a significantly higher risk of dementia, stroke and heart disease.

In the Asia Pacific region, more women than men over 65 live alone and older women in rural areas can be particularly vulnerable socially and economically. Some countries have developed initiatives to address social isolation. Australia introduced the FriendLine which allows isolated older people to have free, anonymous calls with volunteers and the community-led Village Hubs which aim to connect older people with their communities through a series of activities which in turn supports their physical, social and mental well-being.

It's time to look at aging societies not as a problem, but as a positive outcome of social and economic advancements. With the right investments across the life cycle to ensure healthy aging in a way that addresses the specific needs of women, societies can reap the benefits of the longevity dividend and their citizens can enjoy a happier, healthier old age.

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