By Judith Fales

The United Nations Population Division projects that by 2050, people will live to over 77 years, reflecting an increase of 31 years in the past century. What does this mean for our personal health, finances, relationships, work-life, and sense of purpose? How will living longer impact our social structures and public policy?

These were the questions were recently addressed by a panel at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Moderated by Boston Globe reporter Kay Lazar, the panelists were Marisol Amaya, Executive Director of La Alianza Hispana, an adult day care center in Boston; Caitlin Coyle, Director, Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging, U Mass Boston; Andrew Scott, Professor of Economics at London Business School; and Ashwin Vasan, New York City Health Commissioner.

We tend to focus on the negative aspects of aging in the United States. We medicalize old age, and stress the deterioration of our bodies, while the panelists said we need to focus more on the positives. The panelists pointed out Fauja Singh, who is the first centenarian to complete a marathon. Today, older people are engaged in different types of learning, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees, and are choosing to remain in the workforce. “We need to look at aging as a process,” says Scott. “We don’t just suddenly become old.”

The panelists stated that individuals and society need to prepare for longer lives, since there are issues that naturally come with aging. One in four older adults experience behavioral health problems, such as depression or substance abuse. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the health impacts of isolation and loneliness, which are public health issues. They noted that adults who experience persistent loneliness have a 57% risk of early death, and a higher risk of disease and disability.

The panelists discussed the many ways in which we can address these problems. For example, architects can design residential spaces more like office buildings, so that they are more conducive to having residents interact with one another. They also cited the need to create more adult centers with a variety of engaging programs for older people.

Vasan talked about the benefits of the “Be a Buddy” program in New York City, through which seniors get a daily phone call. He also talked about a public/private partnership that could offer online mental health services to help normalize the process of asking for and receiving help.

Pairing young people with seniors leads to learning that happens in both directions, according to Coyle. Meanwhile, Amaya talked about the benefits of teaching technology to older people in age-appropriate ways. “Societal interventions have allowed us to live longer lives, and societal interventions are needed to make those years productive,” says Vasan.

People used to retire at age 65. Now, we live 15 to 20 years longer. Final thoughts from the panel include the following advice: “Make a friend of your future self, never stop learning, and spend less time on screens and more on making community.”

Judith Fales is an editor and writer for Buffalo Healthy Living.