How we treat the elderly will dictate the climate death toll
We are growing older as a species and the climate is changing. How these two trends intersect will be defined by what place older adults have in our lives.
Cultural differences in our treatment of older adults will greatly shape the extent of suffering we collectively experience as climate change takes effect. Those who are 65 years or older are one of the fastest growing populations in the world. Today they represent 9% of the world but by 2100 they will represent 22%. And unlike working age adults (15-64) or even children (< 15 ), older adults are an acutely vulnerable population when it comes to extreme weather events. As a group that only grows more dependent over time, the cultural context older adults live within will greatly determine their ability to avoid suffering. Non-Western cultures have a reverence for aging and an emphasis on family connections when compared to Western culture which has an aversion to growing old and a penchant for individualism. There’s no right or wrong way to approach aging, but in the face of climate change these differences in cultural traits will significantly shape the fate of older adults and their communities.
The aging of the world’s population is one of the biggest demographic shifts in human history. Most of this aging will take place in North America, Europe, and Asia. Climate change already impacts older adults but in the closing decades of the 2000s, nearly 1 in 4 of us will be over the age of 65 and all of us will experience the consequences of a warmer world. Older adults as a population more frequently face issues including heart and respiratory ailments, reduced mobility, increased sensitivity to heat, and decreased cognitive function. Any one of these conditions make older adults more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and most of the time they have multiple conditions. It’s hard for a young adult to have the presence of mind to evacuate in a flood warning, now imagine someone who is bedridden and showing early signs of dementia attempting the same feat. This COP21 report provides much greater detail on the intersections between climate events and older adult vulnerabilities. But nothing makes the point more succinctly than the astonishing fact that 75% of those who died during Hurricane Katrina were above the age of 60. Hardship will fall upon all of us as the climate warms, but older adults will disproportionately be affected based purely on how the body changes as it ages.
While older adults will face adverse conditions in a warming climate, differences in cultural attitudes will create differences in outcomes. In Western culture, older adults are more likely to live independently or in separate communities amongst other older adults. In non-Western cultures, they are more likely to live with their children. This difference in living situation is a reflection of each culture’s attitude towards aging itself. Western culture puts great emphasis on maintaining individual freedom. This affects both older adults and their children in that both seek to preserve their autonomy and consequently choose to live separately. In non-Western cultures, older adults are given greater respect and there’s a greater sense of family obligation to care for one’s elders. The result is more older adults living with their children or at least staying close by. There are pros and cons to Western and non-Western attitudes in terms of life satisfaction, neither is strictly preferable. However as it relates to climate change, older adults and their families in non-Western cultures will see better outcomes than those in Western culture.
Older adults in non-Western cultures will have higher resilience to the impacts of climate change. In aging, resilience is the capacity for an older adult to bounce back from adverse events such as a fall or illness. This capacity depends on factors at the cellular, physiological, individual, family, community, and societal level. And it’s at the family and community level where non-Western cultures provide the biggest boost to resilience capacity. Whether it’s a prolonged power outage or wildfire evacuation, being able to rely on family enables older adults to rebound from a crisis more successfully than if they were on their own. In the United States, many volunteer organizations have to send out calls to older adults during heatwaves in order to ensure their safety. Such actions are less necessary if older adults are already embedded into the community through family. Having a support system to lean on in emergency situations will increase the overall health of older adults in non-Western cultures as extreme weather events grow more frequent.
The other benefit to the more embedded position of older adults in non-Western cultures comes from attention. A society where the old live amongst the young creates numerous interactions which can highlight the struggles of older adults. Over time this will lead to better solutions for everyone. OXO kitchenware is a good illustration. Having witnessed his arthritic wife’s struggles with a kitchen peeler, Sam Farber created a version that not only helped those with arthritis, but also everyone else using peelers. In situations where older adults are isolated or separated from the broader community, addressing their needs becomes harder due to lack of awareness. Support for such a conclusion can be seen in the problem of elder neglect within some nursing homes in the United States. Adaptations that benefit older adults and everyone else are more likely to occur when everyone can clearly see the problems older adults face. It’s the difference between “Out of sight, out of mind” and “The squeaky wheel gets the grease”.
When future historians look back on the end of this century and calculate the toll of climate change on humanity, this divide in cultural attitudes towards older adults will dominate the analysis. Pearl Buck, a Pulitzer and Nobel prize winning author once wrote:
"Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members”
In the coming century of climate change, non-Western cultures stand the best chance of passing Buck’s test of civilization. That’s not to say there is no hope for Western culture, just that intervention in the form of attitude adjustments, government actions, or market solutions will be needed to match the benefits already present in non-Western societies. We are growing older as a species and the climate is changing. How these two trends intersect will be defined by what place older adults have in our lives.