Elderly people in China: In developing countries the number of older city dwellers will multiply 16-fold

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Cities will benefit from and must care for
an increasing number of older residents

A report by the WHO, edited by Sven Krüger

3 October 2007: The world is rapidly ageing. The number of people aged 60 and over as a proportion of the global population will double from 11 per cent in 2006 to 22 per cent by 2050. By then, there will be more older people than children (aged 0–14 years) in the population for the first time in human history. And, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), already 75 per cent of older people in developed countries live in cities.

"Older people are concentrated in cities and will become even more so," said Dr Alex Kalache, Director of the WHO Ageing and Life Course Programme. "Today around 75 per cent of all older people living in the developed world are urban dwellers - expected to increase to 80 per cent in 2015. More spectacularly, in developing countries the number of older people in cities will increase from 56 million in 2000 to over 908 million in 2050."

Developing countries are ageing at a much faster rate than developed countries: within five decades, just over 80 per cent of the world’s older people will be living in developing countries compared with 60 per cent in 2005.

At the same time, the world is a growing city: as of 2007, over half of the global population now lives in cities. Megacities, that is, cities with 10 million inhabitants or more, increased tenfold from 2 to 20 during the 20th century, accounting for nine per cent of the world’s urban population by 2005.

The number and proportion of urban dwellers will continue to rise over the coming decades, and particularly in cities with fewer than five million inhabitants. Again, this growth is happening much more rapidly in developing regions. By 2030, about three out of every five people in the world will live in cities and the number of urban dwellers in the less developed regions will be almost four times as large as that in the more developed regions.

An increasing number of older people are also living in cities. The proportion of the older adult population residing in cities in developed countries matches that of younger age groups at about 80 per cent, and will rise at the same pace. In developing countries, however, the share of older people in urban communities will multiply 16 times from about 56 million in 1998 to over 908 million in 2050.

By that time, older people will comprise one-fourth of the total urban population in less developed countries. Population ageing and urbanization are the culmination of successful human development during last century. They also are major challenges for this century. Living longer is the fruit of critical gains in public health and in standards of living.

As stated in the WHO Brasilia Declaration on Ageing in 1996, “healthy older people are a resource for their families, their communities and the economy”. Urban growth is associated with a country’s technological and economic development.

Vibrant cities benefit a country’s entire population – urban and rural. Because cities are the centre of cultural, social and political activity, they are a hothouse for new ideas, products and services that influence other communities and therefore the world. Yet to be sustainable, cities must provide the structures and services to support their residents’ wellbeing and productivity.

Older people in particular require supportive and enabling living environments to compensate for physical and social changes associated with ageing. Making cities more age-friendly is a necessary and logical response to promote the wellbeing and contributions of older urban residents and keep cities thriving.

These are some of the findings of the report and guide ‘Global age-friendly cities’, published by the World Health Organisation in October 2007.

While WHO guide is aimed primarily at urban planners, older citizens can use it to monitor progress towards more age-friendly cities. At its heart is a checklist of age-friendly features. For example, an age-friendly city has sufficient public benches that are well-situated, well-maintained and safe, as well as sufficient public toilets that are clean, secure, accessible by people with disabilities and well-indicated. Other key features of an age-friendly city include:

• Well-maintained and well-lit sidewalks;
• Public buildings that are fully accessible to people with disabilities;
• City bus drivers who wait until older people are seated before starting off and priority seating on buses;
• Enough reserved parking spots for people with disabilities;
• Housing integrated in the community that accommodates changing needs and abilities as people grow older;
• Friendly, personalized service and information instead of automated answering services;
• Easy-to-read written information in plain language;
• Public and commercial services and stores in neighbourhoods close to where people live, rather than concentrated outside the city; and
• A civic culture that respects and includes older persons.
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