Concept of Old Age Needs Updating

Aging ImageTo truly create a "society for all ages," the concept of old age must be updated.

"Recent studies have shown that older people are living healthier and healthier lives, and (are living) longer and longer," Suzanne Paul, the founder of Global Action on Aging, told directors of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries during their April 19-22 meeting.

For example, Asian countries are experiencing for the first time a significant increase in aging populations. The Rev. Robert Solomon, a medical doctor, theologian and pastor of the Methodist Church in Singapore, pointed to Hong Kong, where the number of persons over 65 is expected to jump from 9.8 percent in 1995 to 27.7 percent in 2030. Other countries, such as China and South Korea, also will have significant increases.

Paul, a former staff executive with the agency, noted that most people over 60 now have "an enormous capacity" to continue contributing to society.

But, at a time when societies everywhere are "graying," members of these older populations actually are working proportionally shorter periods of their life spans than their grandparents did. In addition, weakened economies and changes in living situations make it less likely that older people have substantial pensions or family to rely upon once they retire or can no longer find a job.

In particular, the family support system has weakened. "Under the best of circumstances, families stay in touch with younger and older members," Paul said. "However, most families are no longer able to provide a home or care for older members."

That is becoming true even in countries where extending family living has been the norm. In Japan, for instance, half of the elderly lived with married children during the 1980s, Solomon said. The percentage had declined to 39 percent by 1992.

"Modern society has become an employee society," Solomon added. Focus on jobs has meant less time and less flexibility to meet the needs of family members, she explained. "The usual safety net that was provided by families in Asian countries now has many holes."

Weakened economies and pressure from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to privatize public pensions have led to reduced health care benefits and pensions in a number of countries, according to Paul.

But in the United States, where the popular Social Security program is running at an annual surplus of $50 billion, there has been "a remarkable feat of deception" to support arguments that the program is near collapse, Paul charged. The push, she said, is coming from big businesses that would profit from a change in the system.

"Privatization of public pensions will benefit a very few," she argued. "It will benefit some - those who are already wealthy." But privatization of Social Security will make the already economically marginal "very, very desperate."

Paul said it is time to explode the myth that there is a lack of resources to sustain the earth's population. "Human society has never experienced so much plenty. This didn't exist a century ago," she pointed out. "The problem is that so much wealth is in the hands of so few. We must find a better way to distribute the fruits of our common labor."

She urged board directors to help build intergenerational - and international solidarity toward creating a just society. "Churches can and must lead the way to a new society for people of all ages," Paul said.

The United Nations is observing the International Year of Older Persons during 1999. The United Methodist Teleconference Connection will sponsor a satellite teleconference on that topic on Oct. 16. For more information, call (212) 870-3802 or send an e-mail to or

This United Methodist News Service article is reprinted with permission.

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