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Aging in Developing Nations: Beyond Depression

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Twenty per cent of seniors in the South American country of Ecuador live in extreme poverty, mostly in rural areas, according to a World Health Organization advisor on healthy aging.

Enrique Vega Garcia told a conference panel that the numbers are similar across Latin America and in much of the developing world. Many of these people have poor access to medical treatment and suffer ill health as a consequence.

Garcia spoke during a Winnipeg conference last month, entitled "Age-Friendly Rural and Remote Communities and Places." The conference was hosted by the University of Manitoba's Centre on Aging and co-sponsored by the Province of Manitoba's Seniors and Healthy Aging Secretariat.

The event invited academics, policy makers and representatives from seniors' organizations from countries worldwide to discuss solutions to the social and demographic impacts of an aging society.

The concept of "age-friendly," coined by the World Health Organization , stresses the need for communities to develop transportation, streets, housing , and social engagement for seniors to remain happy, active members of society.

But in developing nations, the issue goes far beyond building better sidewalks and housing. Vega Garcia recalled speaking to an older man in South America with serious health issues. The man was also dealing with family issues at the time, and Vega Garcia asked if he was depressed.

"Oh, son, I have no time to be depressed," the man replied.

Vega Garcia says impoverished seniors don't have time to enjoy old age, either, and that's a problem.

"The people don't have time to play," he said.

Responsibilities to family, community and the need to make a living for survival trump seniors' efforts to stay healthy in these areas. Vega Garcia says age-friendly in these cases means finding ways to alleviate some of the stress and responsibility of life in old age.

The Director of the University of Manitoba's Centre on Aging, Verena Menec, said we need to address the demographic shift caused by an increasing number of older people.

"It's an issue in every part of the world. Especially in developing countries."

Menec said age-friendly is a positive solution to a complex issue. She said the initiative has grown rapidly since its inception in 2006.

"It has come to be an international movement," she said.

Her ongoing research will likely measure how the health and quality of life of seniors varies in communities that have embraced age-friendly. Part of the challenge, advocates say, is changing a common perception of older people as a burden on society.

Helen Hamlin, a 90-year-old resident of New York City, relies on a mantra to dispel the myth.

"Older people are resources, not burdens," she says.

The mantra stresses seniors' contributions to society as volunteers, tax-payers, and caregivers in their communities. Hamlin is the International Federation on Ageing's main representative to the United Nations. She speaks from experience when she says that aging has gotten "a bad rap."

"When people look at me and say, 'Oh, you're that age?' I say of course. I'm proud of it."
She says she's healthy, she lives alone, and it's a good life.

"There are many people who continue to live and they don't like themselves," Hamlin said.
"You need to remind yourself that it's okay to be old."

Lindsay Jolivet is an intern with the Evidence Network of Canadian Health Policy. Her work has been published in the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Magazine, The Sudbury Star and broadcast on the CBC.