By Paul H. Irving
The announcement this month of a major Los Angeles city and county initiative – Purposeful Aging Los Angeles – is an exciting beginning for a multiyear effort to unleash the potential of the region’s aging population and create a better future for all Angelenos.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was the first U.S. mayor to sign the Milken Institute’s Best Cities for Successful Aging Mayor’s Pledge, which unites public-sector leaders around a commitment to enhance aging lives and enable older adults to contribute to our cities.
There is now a historic opportunity for the mayor, his colleagues on the county Board of Supervisors and a wide range of stakeholders to build on the spirit of the pledge and set the standard for regions with aging populations that hunger for new ideas and innovative practices.
Increasing longevity is one of the most significant achievements in human history. Longer lives have contributed to unprecedented global economic growth and possibilities for personal fulfillment that previous generations could only dream of. But the risks that accompany an aging population are now upon us. Dependency, disease, and financial insecurity are increasing threats. We segregate older people from communities, civic institutions, and workplaces. We dismiss their aspirations and underestimate their capacity for productivity and creativity. We stereotype, discounting their wisdom and experience. We encourage their disengagement and isolation.
While too many older adults confront illness and financial hardship, the trends are encouraging. Older adults today are generally healthier and more vibrant than their forebears. They represent a largely untapped resource with much to offer – not just the wisdom of age, but also the practical experience that can enrich families, work, and educational and social settings. They offer great potential for mentoring and training in the workplace, along with valuable perspectives that enhance intergenerational collaboration and understanding. They drive economic growth in entrepreneurial ventures. In encore careers and volunteer activities, their guidance and beneficial support contribute to society’s well-being.
One in five Americans will be age 65 or older by 2030, with most living in urban environments. Worldwide, this older group will outnumber children under 14 by midcentury. Los Angeles shares this life-changing demographic shift. According to the California Department of Finance, the number of adults age 65 or older is projected to increase by an estimated 43 percent from 2010 to 2020. The greatest growth will occur in the county’s oldest cohort, those age 85 and above.
Public officials are on the frontlines in addressing the consequences of the region’s unprecedented aging. Their response will measure not only their leadership but the global stature of Los Angeles.
New retirement norms
Older Angelenos expect an improving quality of life, dignity, and the ability to age independently. They want to remain connected to friends, families, and colleagues as well as to community, faith, and cultural institutions. New retirement norms require pathways to new possibilities for work and purposeful contributions.
Los Angeles must become more physically, economically, and socially attuned to the well-being of its mature residents. It must optimize health and promote connection. It must offer responsive social services and opportunities for lifelong learning, work, and volunteerism that benefit all residents.
Our region must upgrade infrastructure and encourage advances in technology and communications to enable people to age well at home. Continuing improvements in transportation and new housing options will promote mobility, safety, and convenience, enabling older adults to remain active participants in neighborhoods and communities.
The challenges to achieve this vision of a world-leading, age-friendly Los Angeles will not be insignificant. A large number of our older adults in the region do not have the means to meet basic needs. Affordable housing options are limited. Health solutions are not well-distributed. Expanding transit options will take time. Ageism in workplaces and the broader culture impedes opportunity. The diversity of the population represents a powerful asset but also increased complexity.
Yes, there will be challenges. But purposeful aging is a central issue that will determine the quality of life in the region for all.
This is the time to imagine a new future of aging in our region. We applaud the mayor and supervisors for their announcement of Purposeful Aging Los Angeles.
Paul H. Irving is chairman of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute and distinguished scholar in residence at USC’s Davis School of Gerontology.