Celebrations and Fears: The Annual Gerontology Conference

The recent annual scientific meeting of the Gerontological Society of America in New Orleans was one part aging celebration, one part madhouse as 450 sessions over five days celebrated the successes and challenges of aging – and there were challenges aplenty.

Overarching topics included worldwide aging, the crisis in caregiving, the scourge of social isolation, and post-election health policy under the new Trump administration.

Australian John Beard of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that 194 countries have signed on to the organization’s global aging plan, which includes guidelines for age-friendly communities.

Although the “silver tsunami” is rising internationally, Beard said the United States does not compare favorably to its global neighbors.

“There are countries in Europe with far more older people than the United States will ever have, and they have sustainable economies,” said Beard.

By turns illuminating and sobering, the conference showcased the many shortcomings of coordinating care.

“We have a lot of issues that people are working on right next to one another,” said one panelist during a discussion of health in the Appalachian Mountains. “And they don’t know one another.”

Several presentations were made on positive aging, including sessions on human-animal interactions (pets) and Tai Chi for improved physical and emotional health.

An emotionally-wrought audience squeezed into one conference room to hear experts discuss health in the “post-election world.” Fears that president-elect Trump would completely dismantle the Affordable Care Act were tempered with the political realities of compromise.

One of the greatest modern challenges of aging is caregiving.

At a press event highlighting this year’s report on caregiving by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Rita Choula of the AARP Public Policy Institute gave a harrowing account of caring for her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

“Nobody asked me any questions,” she lamented. “Nobody told me what I needed to do.”

The report includes recommendations for addressing the fragmented state of caregiving in the United States.

On a more positive note, Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation, announced a new online resource to combat social isolation at Connect2Affect.org.

“Social connections that are not technological or virtual are on the decline,” said Ryerson, “and we know that many older adults are paying a price.”

The full conference program can be accessed here.

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