The upcoming challenges of aging populations for the family and society

A cursory glance at Italian society reveals a rapidly aging population, far removed from the stereotypical image of the Italian family with three generations enjoying a long and leisurely Sunday lunch together. The evidence of the shrinking Italian family is beyond doubt, but the social and economic effects of an aging population have yet to enter into our public consciousness. On December 2, 2010, the Acton Institute, along with co-sponsors the Pontifical Council for the Family, the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and Family, Associazione Famiglia Domani, Centro di Orientamento Politico, Human Life International, and Health Care Italia, held a one-day conference at the Pontifical Lateran University to raise awareness of these changes.

The conference was entitled “The Upcoming Challenge of the Ethical Care of the Elderly” because we wanted to focus our attention especially on the ethical nature of caring for the elderly without neglecting the technical aspects of an aging population. All of the speakers at the December conference highlighted important issues, ranging from the anthropological significance of smaller families to what it means for the workplace, the additional pressures placed on our healthcare and pensions systems, and hospice care. As our other Acton conferences, we sought to apply the principles of Catholic social teaching to contemporary problems and reaffirm the importance of the Church’s moral guidance.

Nearly every speaker went out of his way to say that aging populations are not in and of themselves, because the gift of human life never can be, a problem. The medical and technological advances made in areas such as maternal and child health care have contributed mightily to increasing life-expectancies around the world, and if we consider, as we must, life as a gift from God, then we should rightly be celebrating such advances.  The fact that elderly people can and do lead active and happy lives is a blessing for all of us. But it would be a mistake to ignore the changes brought on by aging societies and to think matters can simply continue as before with no negative consequences.

Although the conference focused on the elderly and what increasing life-spans mean for ethical health care, the principle reason we have aging societies starts at the other end of the life spectrum: the lack of children coming into the world. His Excellency Bishop Jean Laffitte, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, explained how falling birth rates affect our understanding of family and social life and all the problems that result from this. One of the more striking statistics provided at the conference came from Prof. Philip Booth of the Institute for Economic Affairs in London, who noted that at current birth rates, there will only be 16 Italians living in 500 years. Being presented with such a startling fact forces one to take note of the great heritage of the Italian people and what could be lost due to declining birth rates and smaller populations. Without younger Italians, who will care for older Italians? If Italians no longer exist, who will be living in Italy?

With aging societies, we are presented with different types of illnesses and ailments, such as arthritis, decreased mobility and Alzheimer’s disease. The last of these was discussed by experts such as Dr. Martin Bednar, head of clinical research at Pfizer, and Dr. Michael Hodin, executive director of the new Global Coalition on Aging. Dr. Bednar’s presentation looked at some of the medical advances being made in the treatment of Alzheimer’s. Early treatment and delaying the onset of the disease can, in some cases, serve as a “cure” since the disease tends to affect those in the last years of life. Such treatment could also spare the patient’s family from the trauma and difficulties of witnessing a loved one fail to recognize family members and friends. Dr. Hodin looked at some of the ways public policy and workplace adaptations, such as raising the retirement age, can help us adjust to aging societies and in fact improve individual and social welfare in the process.

On the economic side of these issues, it is no accident that developed economies are faced with debt crises due to inflexible labor markets that freeze young people out of the workforce, overly-generous pension systems, state-mandated insurance and social assistance programs that crowd out private and family support systems, as Prof. Booth and researcher Oskari Juurikkala of the University of Helsinki described at the conference. There are simple (but politically difficult to implement) remedies to these problems, as those who benefit from the status quo are often unwilling to accept the needed reforms.  Seeing the protests to minor reforms in developed countries such as Greece and France, it is painfully obvious that our societies lack a general sense of deferred gratification or of sacrifice for future generations, which are a manifest result of declining religious mores and increasing secularization and individualism. The growing role of the state in areas of life previously managed by the family, religious and voluntary associates and private enterprise had impoverished us both economically and spiritually.

In the end, however, I wonder whether the challenges of an aging society are more related to the problem of facing the inevitability of our own mortality. Mr. Greg Hadley, who has written on aging as the “autumn phase of life”, gave a moving testimonial on the tribulations of growing old, such as losing the mastery of one’s body and mind and seeing one’s life-long friends die. It should come as no surprise to readers of Famiglia Domani that family life and the presence of grandchildren are often what keep many elderly people engaged and hopeful. For those who believe in eternal life such as Mr. Hadley, death is not the end but merely a penultimate stage in our journey, a journey in preparation for our life in union with God our Father and creator. While so much about our social and economic life has changed around us, this most fundamental truth about our existence remains the same. Judging from the presentations at our December conference, those with the most supernatural outlook on life are also the most sensible about what can be done here and now to accommodate our aging societies. This should be an encouragement to us all.