Now that the summer Olympics have come to end, another big sporting event on the global stage lies ahead in 2014: the World Cup in Brazil. The Brazilians have an enormous task – and a great opportunity – in front of them: Get Rio de Janeiro ready for the continent’s first World Cup and then, not long after that, the summer Olympics of 2016.
But as its public and private sectors coordinate to improve Rio’s infrastructure, the country also has the opportunity to both meet short-term spectator needs and long-term infrastructure issues associated with a ballooning aging population. Sport and aging may seem like an odd marriage – but both the World Cup and the Olympics celebrate and promote health, activity, and physical excellence. As the population of Brazil and the rest of the world ages at an unprecedented rate, aging must also become a celebration of health and activity. With two billion of us around the world turning 60 within a few decades, twenty-first century aging must be a time of continued physical and mental accomplishment.
A number of cities have begun to realize that urban infrastructure can become an enabling force for healthy, active aging. Taipei, Newcastle, Qiqihaer and New York City, among others, have begun developing local projects that enable older people to remain active in social and economic life. Experts have argued that this has tremendous benefits for mental and cognitive health. As the Brazilians pour billions into Rio, they would be wise to build sustainable infrastructure for their older population long after the world turns its attention elsewhere.
The need for age-friendly development in Brazil is urgent. In 2010, the over-60 demographic made up 10 percent of Brazil’s population. By 2050, that will total 29 percent, while the median age of Brazilians will be 45. Due to tremendous increases in longevity and persistent drops in fertility, the Brazilians are following in the footsteps of today’s “oldest” countries such as Japan, South Korea, Germany, and others.
The chorus has been loud, of course, for Brazil to be smart and strategic about its infrastructure investments in Rio, not just for the sake of its aging populations but for some of its poorest city dwellers as well. A recent New York Times article pleaded, “In preparing for the World Cup and the Olympics, Rio has an opportunity to make long-term investments and integrate the favelas [the poorest sections] by providing the missing support services like education, job training, health care, day care, and sanitation.” Since in the coming decades, Brazil – and much of the rest of the world – will face no greater social, political, and economic challenge than the aging of its population, the country needs to protect its emerging economy by embracing the 29 percent of its population that, by 20th century standards, is growing "old," as well as the full breadth of its populace.
So what would age-friendly development look like? At its most basic, it would follow the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities guidance, which emphasizes “older peoples’ access to public transport, outdoor spaces and buildings, as well as appropriate housing, community support, and health services.” But it would also envision a life approach to healthy aging that would enable an active and productive older demographic to fully participate economically. By partnering with top universities and health professionals, Brazil could create one of the world’s foremost age-friendly cities just when it has the world’s attention. This could be a global model.
Today, it's nothing short of common sense that development should be “green” and “environmentally friendly.” If Rio gets it right, we’ll be saying the same thing about “age-friendly development” the next time the world’s foremost synchronized swimmers take to the pool.
Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is Adjunct Senior Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations and Executive Director of The Global Coalition on Aging.