As medical care progresses and treatments become available for illnesses that once were considered life-threatening, people are living longer — often much longer — than they did even just a few generations ago. This phenomenon is prevalent not only in the developed world, but also in the developing world, as new medicines and treatments are becoming available globally. We can all look forward to a longer life, and a lengthy retirement period during which we can pursue hobbies and other activities we never had time for during our working years.
Unfortunately, there is a flip side to this story: many elderly people do fall ill, or have accidents, preventing them from leading satisfying lives. Others may lose some mental capacity, or become clinically depressed, believing they have less to look forward to. Still others may outlive their assets and find themselves in financial difficulty. In all these cases, the elderly will come to rely on others, whether their families, friends, or government assistance programs.
Japan provides a good example of a country where the population is not only aging, but aging rapidly. During the 1950s, the percentage of Japanese men and women over the age of 65 was about 5 percent. However, by 1990, the percentage of people 65 and older was nearly 12 percent, and by 2010, 22 percent. This rate of increase in the elderly population is much more rapid than in other industrialized countries, and is primarily caused by low fertility and high life expectancy. These demographics have a tremendous effect on society: government spending must tilt heavily toward social expenditures, as health care and pension systems come under strain. And as the worker-to-retiree ratio continues to plummet, Japan must decide whether to continue raising the retirement age, or to admit millions of younger immigrants to bolster the tax-paying workforce.
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Your Aging Parents
Given these long-term global trends, it is likely that you may have aging parents who are beginning to have trouble looking after themselves. There is much you can do to help make their lives more comfortable. Particularly in Western societies, elderly people prefer to maintain their independence as long as possible, keeping their own living quarters and running their own errands; many older people simply don’t want to feel they are a burden on others. If your aging parent is becoming incapable of managing many routine daily matters, he or she may not be ready to accept the changing circumstances. You should pay more frequent visits to your parent, and ensure that his or her living space is as manageable as possible. If your parent has trouble with stairs, for instance, but lives in a multi-story dwelling, you might need to install an electric stair lift — a seat attached to a rail that can transport a person up a staircase.
Make sure that everything in the living space is within easy reach. One of the most frequent preventable accidents among elderly people is a sudden fall and subsequent hip fracture. Hip fractures almost always require surgery, and patients often continue to suffer discomfort afterward. Keeping commonly used items in the bedroom or kitchen within easy reach may help prevent a fall.
A more difficult problem among the elderly is clinical depression. In the United States, some 2 million out of 35 million adults over the age of 65 suffer from full-blown depression, and another 5 million suffer from milder forms of depression. Symptoms of depression include fatigue, losing interest in hobbies or other pursuits, social isolation, loss of appetite (and subsequent weight loss), insomnia (or excessive sleepiness), or increased use of alcohol or other drugs. If your elderly parent exhibits these or other troubling symptoms, first, just spend more time together, then begin to mix this time together with social outings among other people. Simply being around others may make your depressed parent begin to feel better. Make sure your parent is eating well — including sufficient protein, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains — and getting an appropriate amount of exercise. If you parent is on any medication, such as an antidepressant, ensure that he or she is taking the medication as instructed, and not mixing it with alcohol or other substances if forbidden to do so by the prescribing doctor.
Beyond these steps, you should ensure that your parent is still able to keep track of his or her finances, and if you notice that bills are not getting paid, you should offer assistance. Set aside a few hours each week to go through your parent’s bills, checkbook, income, and other matters. Your parent may initially be reluctant to cede control over this aspect of life, so take it slowly. And, eventually, it might make sense to obtain financial power of attorney over your parent’s finances, enabling you to act on his or her behalf should your parent become incapacitated.
We all get older, but each and every case offers up different, particular challenges. Be sensitive to your aging parent’s needs, and the process will go more smoothly.