Singapore, one of the world’s fastest-aging countries, has announced a massive, multipronged plan to help its citizens age successfully — one that advocates say leaves the United States in the dust.
The $2.1 billion plan announced by the Ministry of Health, “A Nation for All Ages,” comprises initiatives on topics such as health and wellness, education, volunteerism, housing, transportation, and social inclusion.
A new “National Silver Academy” will offer post-secondary education to older people, and up to $142 million will go toward innovations in research to transform the experience of aging. The initiative also includes housing elder-care and child-care centers in the same facilities to promote intergenerational bonding and piloting therapeutic gardens for dementia and stroke patients.
Singapore, an island city-state of 5.5 million, is one of the fastest aging populations in the world, with the number of residents aged 65 and over projected to hit 19 percent in 2030, up from 9.3 percent in 2011. Its plan is striking in that it focuses heavily on empowerment rather than just tending to the frail.
To be fair, it is easier to implement a nationwide plan in a tiny country where executive decisions are more streamlined. The government there enjoys high approval ratings and its large-scale plans are not subject to U.S.-style partisan battles.
On top of that, Singapore is culturally just a better place to be an old person. Deeply rooted Confucian beliefs include respect for one’s elders. In the workplace, increased deference is shown toward older employees; and in the family, oldest members are introduced first and given the choicest food. Children are legally required to assume financial responsibility for their elderly parents should the need arise. The country even has a minister in charge of aging.
But even though the United States is a larger, more diverse country with different challenges, it would do well to emulate Singapore’s approach, American experts say.
“They get it,” said Paul Irving, chairman of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute and distinguished scholar-in-residence at the University of Southern California’s Davis School of Gerontology. “They get that older people represent a human capital asset that can improve the country. . . . They’re not just a burden on society, they’re not just a silver tsunami, but also a wonderful opportunity to capitalize on the human resource that older adults represent and to take advantage of their wisdom and judgment. We need leaders at all levels understanding this, taking it on, and getting involved.”
Instead of focusing on building more nursing homes, for example, countries should be looking for ways to improve the experience of aging at different points of the life cycle, said Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.
“They’re really focusing on aging as a longevity issue and not just an issue of the elderly, and it’s brilliant,” she said of the Singapore plan. Too often, she said, “people just focus on ‘We’ve got to build a society that supports very old, frail people.’ We’ve got to build a society that supports people all the way through these long lives. . . . Any country that looks at longevity and not just old age stands to do well in the future.”
While Singapore’s approach is unusually comprehensive, governments in other countries with aging populations have also begun to embrace more proactive initiatives. For example, the United Kingdom this year announced it would put $77 million in National Lottery funds toward programs to support better aging.
In recent years, American cities and counties have increasingly embraced “age friendly” initiatives.
But overall the United States is faltering when it comes to its aging population, said Marc Freedman, founder and chief executive of Encore.org and author of “The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.” This is true despite the fact that the nation’s population of those aged 65 and over is projected to almost double by 2050, to 83.7 million.
“To my knowledge, there’s nothing here even under discussion that resembles the thoughtful, forward-looking, and comprehensive approach embodied in the new plan from Singapore —a gulf reflected in the recent White House Conference on Aging, which for example barely touched on the continued contribution of older people to the economy or to society,” he said. “By stark contrast, Singapore’s plan offers a framework for how we might go about transforming the purported zero-sum prospect of the aging society into a potential human capital windfall and a source of cross-generational harmony.
“We should see this effort as a challenge,” he said. “It’s time to develop a comparable blueprint for the U.S.”