This article was originally published on Forbes.com.
Demographic change is a defining issue of our time. As the worldwide population ages, the healthcare systems of every country, including the United States, will face significant challenges to meet the needs of an aging population.
This article is the first in a series that will explore how nations are coping with demographic change. The series on aging will give you a close look at the future of long term care through the lens of a number of different healthcare systems. The articles will highlight people, communities, and companies that have found remarkable approaches to address problems associated with an aging population. My team at ACCESS Health and I helped identify these innovative approaches through years of research on elder care in Europe, Asia, and here in North America.
Elder and long term care is rapidly becoming one of the most daunting healthcare challenges of our day. Between 2015 and 2030, the number of people in the world aged 60 years or over is expected to grow by 56%, from just over 900 million to nearly 1.5 billion. By 2050, the global population of people older than 60 is expected to jump to two billion. In the United States, the number of Americans over the age of 65 is expected to doublefrom roughly 50 million today to nearly 100 million by 2060. While the United States is currently ranked among the top countries in the world for the elderly, there are significant variations across the country in access to healthcare and quality of life.
Central and South America are also rapidly aging. In every country in the region, the proportion of people over the age of 60 will increase significantly. The same demographic changes are happening in the Caribbean, where low and falling fertility rates compound the problem. In Europe, the aging population is also increasing. Europe faces its own unique challenges, in large part due to the global financial crisis of 2008. In Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal governments had to reform pension systems after the crisis, increasing the retirement age, limiting the number of benefits, and reducing resources allocated for healthcare and social care. In populous Asian countries like China and India, there are even greater challenges due to the sheer number of older people. In China, the population of people over 65 is expected to jump from 8% to 24% in just 30 years.
Neither low, nor middle, nor high income countries are immune to the implications of this change. As people age, they suffer from more and more illnesses. These chronic illnesses are placing an increasing burden on health systems. Governments need to recognize the effects of demographic change, not merely on public services, but on the social climate of each nation. Countries will have to reconsider all aspects of their communities, from healthcare systems and methods of delivering care to how whole cities are structured. An aging population can also create an unsustainable burden at the household level. The physical and emotional burden of providing care to an aging loved one is compounded by the fiscal burden as well.
Each country needs to find a way to avoid these scenarios. The benefit of changed population pyramids is that they force all of us to scrutinize our old ways of thinking and design new services and ways of delivering care. Governments must plan decades ahead, studying the economic and social implications of aging. As societies age, all those involved in the healthcare and social care systems must adapt their services, and continuously learn.
Many countries are finding new cost effective approaches to elder and long term care that meet the needs of their growing population of elders while containing costs. Some are building age friendly cities and housing. Others are adapting traditional services and products to meet new consumer needs. Many are revisiting their policy agendas and reviewing their healthcare financing systems as well. In the next article we will turn our focus to one country that has implemented some very low cost but high impact approaches to elder care, with great success: Sweden.