by Lisa Bayley
In Latin America and the Caribbean, 24 per cent of the population, or 200 million people, will be categorised as older adults by 2050. But according to an international advisor on healthy aging, this same demographic was “growing old without good health”.
This disclosure came from visiting Advisor on Healthy Ageing at the Pan-American Health Organization/World Health Organization, Dr. Enrique Vega, who was recently in Barbados to address a one-day stakeholder consultation on this subject at the Savannah Hotel, Hastings, Christ Church.
He, however, indicated that according to the Plan of Action on the Health of Older Persons including Active and Healthy Ageing (PAHO, 2009), over the next 40 years, the regions demographic situation would offer a window of opportunity.
However, Cuba, Barbados and Martinique, which had the largest elderly populations, only had about 12 years to prepare for a spike in numbers and the associated health and social repercussions.
“Only through adequate social and health investment will it be possible to achieve healthy longevity resulting in a lower economic burden in the future…
“In 2006, there were just over 50 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean [who ever] 60 or older and in less than 20 years that figure will move to more than 100 million. That means that the numbers have doubled in the last 25 years. So, it will be very important to think of it not as a problem but as a very important challenge to manage,” Vega remarked.
He noted that in the Caribbean, the ageing of the population happened very quickly.
“France took around 200 years to age their population to six per cent of people over 60 to 12 per cent of people over age 60 today. While Mexico, which I used because it is the median in Latin America and the Caribbean, did the same process in just four years so it is very difficult for these societies to deal with such a fast change,” Vega emphasised.
He also reported that in the United States and Canada, women more frequently reported having excellent or good health, while in this region, women reported having worse health.
“Women in the Caribbean live longer, but live longer with more diseases and disabilities. In this region, 58 per cent of women reported having fair or poor health and 51 per cent of men. Whereas in the US and Canada, around 22 per cent of people over 65 and also 32 per cent of those 75 years old and older reported having fair or poor health,” Vega explained, pointing to Multi-Chronic Condition (MCC) as one of the major causes of disability in this region.
The US Department of Health & Human Services describes MCC’s as conditions that last a year or more and require ongoing medical attention and/or limit activities of daily living. These concurrent chronic conditions may overwhelm individuals, their families and others who care for them, health care professionals and other service providers.
“More than 30 per cent of older persons in Barbados have at least one NCD and more than 60 per cent of women in Barbados have some limitation or function in their daily life as a result,” Vega outlined. This clearly had a negative impact on healthy ageing.
The expert also pointed to the need for a greater focus on the study of geriatrics by medical and nursing students, noting that those in a six-year medical programme would spend around six months researching mother and child health issues and then they would receive just one week of geriatrics. In his opinion this would need to be addressed.
Vega also spoke about the need for increased community health workers with the requisite tools to care for elderly persons and family givers with the necessary support in the community, the inclusion of the elderly in the creation of public health policies, the adaptation of health systems to rise to population ageing challenges and the training of human resources to adequately meet the health needs of older persons.
He, therefore, urged Barbadians and other regional stakeholders to rise to the challenge since the cost of treating seniors, particularly those with chronic conditions, was high and growing. And, these costs are borne by everyone: governments, families, and the elderly patient.
The clock is ticking for this region as it relates to elderly care issues. On a macro level, pensions and health systems may be severely hampered by growing numbers of older people with NCDs, who often require costly and complicated care, while, on a personal level, the good health for seniors ensures independence, security, and continued productivity.