Population aging is a major concern across the globe, and nowhere is the challenge more daunting than in China. Whereas the United States currently has an estimated 36 million seniors age 65 and older, China already has 208 million seniors (defined in that country as age 60 or older). By 2050, China’s seniors will total 480 million — one-third of its entire population!
“We all recognize the need to engage older adults in productive social and economic activities,” said Dr. Nancy Morrow-Howell, professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work and Director of the Friedman Center for Aging at Washington University, who led the conference. “China has one of the most rapidly aging populations on the planet, so this was an excellent opportunity to reflect on the best approaches to the challenges of aging populations and to galvanize work on the productive engagement of older adults.”
The Center for Social Development at the Brown School joined with seven other academic institutions to organize an international Productive Aging Conference, which was held in August 2011 at Peking University. This was the second conference in China on productive aging; the first was held in July 2009 at Shandong University. Conference planners brought together thought leaders from leading American, Chinese and other research universities to discuss ways to engage older adults in employment, volunteering, caregiving, education and skill-building. More than 240 Chinese researchers, educators, students and government officials attended, along with peers from Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United States.
“Like most modern societies, China is acutely aware of the need to address issues related to aging in their society,” noted Dr. Michael Sherraden, founder of the Center for Social Development at Washington University and one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2010.
“Our goal was to engage Chinese researchers and policy makers in a discussion of the issues they face,” he explained. “Productive aging suggests that elders may continue to be engaged and contributing to the world around them. In a world where a lot of people are healthy for 20 or more years after retirement, every country must rethink the potential roles of older adults in society.”
One example of a best practice presented at the conference was The OASIS Institute, a national, nonprofit education organization that offers a wide range of programs in the arts, humanities, health, technology and volunteer service through its educational centers and community partners in 39 U.S. cities.
“Our evidence-based programs are designed to bring people together to learn, lead and contribute in their communities,” said Marcia Kerz, president of The OASIS Institute. “The Chinese participants were particularly interested in our intergenerational approaches and our chronic disease self-management programs.”
Kerz noted that cultural practices and government policies in China will affect productive aging programs. “Mandatory retirement age in China is 55 for women and 60 for men, and retirees are restricted from doing much work,” she said. “So there are a lot of still vital older adults who need new outlets for their skills and energy.
“In addition,” she added, “China’s cultural tradition is that each family cares for its own elders. But with China’s one child per family policy and younger people needing to work, there’s often no one around to care for the parents and grandparents.”
Kerz believes the OASIS model of enriching lives through lifelong learning, health self-management and community service can be adapted to work in China. “There is a tremendous opportunity for China to tap into a largely untapped resource in its seniors,” she said.
Morrow-Howell agreed. “A new Chinese nonprofit sector is springing up there, focused on how to use the human capital of older adults. They are very interested in increasing volunteerism and testing strategies such as OASIS’ intergenerational tutoring program.”
Another national model highlighted at the conference was Women’s Initiative for Ageing Successfully (WINGS), an organization started in Singapore in 2005. WINGS was developed by a group of female activists concerned with the growing number of older women. Much like the OASIS programs, WINGS aims to empower women to have a holistic view of aging, which encompasses good health, financial security and societal engagement. It emphasizes preventive measures as well as intergenerational activities.
“Practitioners like OASIS and WINGS are good models in demonstrating what older people can do and how they can be engaged. The conference attendees were very interested in that,” said Sherraden.
Researchers from 16 different universities in Asia and the U.S. presented their findings on various aspects of productive aging related to work, volunteerism, education, caregiving, grandparenting and lifelong learning. The U.S. schools attending included Arizona State University, Clemson University, Columbia University, Southern California University, University of Iowa, University of Pittsburgh and Washington University in St. Louis.
“The feedback we have received from all of the attendees has been extremely positive,” said Morrow-Howell. “The conference was definitely an eye-opener for many and it provided further impetus for China, the U.S. and other countries to create an agenda to address the aging issues they face.”
A book summarizing the conference reports and discussions is scheduled for publication in both Chinese and English. A report on the conference is available here. Plans are already underway for a follow-up conference, tentatively scheduled for 2013 in Korea.
“We look forward to continuing the cross-national discussion,” said Morrow-Howell. “We have so much to learn from each other.”