Friday, September 18, 2009
Interview with Dr. Fernando Torres-Gil
Interview with Dr. Fernando Torres-Gil,
Author of The New Aging: Politics and Change in America
Dr. Fernando Torres-Gil is the Associate Dean of the UCLA School of Public Affairs and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs. He holds appointments as Professor of Social Welfare and Public Policy and is the Director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging. A former Professor of Gerontology and Public Administration at the University of Southern California, Dr. Torres-Gil continues there as an Adjunct Professor of Gerontology. He was appointed by President Clinton as the first Assistant Secretary for Aging in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Q. Your book, The New Aging: Politics and Change in America, published in 1992, examined how the retirement of the baby boomer generation would affect how we age. Have most of your predictions come true?
A. I believe most have been on the mark. The need for public programs today is more urgent than ever. There will be no "retirement" for baby boomers, at least not the kind we fantasized about. The pending old age of 80 million people comes at the very time the U.S. is confronting serious crises. When I wrote the book, I was concerned that many baby boomers would awaken at 65 to find that they have not saved, that there was no social safety net, and no equity in their home. The crises have occurred far faster than I ever imagined.
Q. Yet you believe the economic events of the past year provide us with a great opportunity.
A. The baby boomers may well become our next generation of gray panthers – a new generation of senior citizen activists. Our parents and grandparents faced their great adversity when they were young – during the Great Depression, WWII, and the Cold War. Baby boomers, who've had it relatively easy throughout their lifetime, will face their great test when they're old. Our country simply has not prepared for increased longevity. The nation is going to need an engaged citizenry to make up for this.
Q. Another challenge may be that boomers still haven't admitted to the fact that they're aging.
A. This may be the existential crisis of the moment. If there is a silver lining to the mismanagement of the Federal government in the last eight years, it is that those of us who are aging can no longer deny the fact. I am hoping that the crises in finance, savings, and housing will arouse a generation to begin asking what can be done to turn things around.
Q. What is the impact of the intersection of diversity and aging that you discuss in your book?
A. During the next 20 years, our current ethnic minorities will become the new majority. We will expect them to be productive and to pay sufficient taxes to cover the services baby boomers will require from government. If we don't invest in these young immigrant communities today, we may not have the tax base to fund the social programs we'll need tomorrow.
Q. It seems that Los Angeles could be an epicenter of such changes.
A. We have struggled with the tension that sometimes occurs with growth and demographic change, but we have managed to rise above it. I believe L.A. County has the highest degree of tolerance and acceptance of diversity and plurality of anywhere in the country. We continue to remain economically viable specifically because of the influx of Armenians, Persians, Asian Pacific Islanders, Central Americans, and Latinos. L.A. County has really shown that it can prosper from diversity, and we remain a role model for the rest of the country.
Q. We have a large and growing population of family caregivers, a situation that is already considered a national crisis. How can cities and municipalities provide assistance?
A. Caregiving is a preoccupying priority, given the difficulties faced by loved ones. It is not only about identifying individuals in need, but about enabling them to receive services in their homes and communities. There is also the issue of the huge and frequently invisible sacrifices that caregivers make, whether it's an inability to keep working, the pressures of caregiving, or high stress levels that can cause health problems. We need to build up a caregiver workforce made up of immigrant minority low-income workers. The challenges of caregiving will cut across race, income, and political affiliation.
Q. The Department of Public Health has predicted a rise in the incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Will this also increase the need for both family and professional caregivers?
A. Alzheimer's and other dementias will be our HIV/AIDS crisis for the older generation. We have made great strides in addressing the issues of HIV and AIDS and responding to the needs of that population. We must develop an equally effective response to the increase in Alzheimer's and the growing number of older persons who are physically unable to care for themselves.
Q. Employers continue to lose millions of dollars as employees take time off to care for older family members. What can we do to mobilize the workforce to help with the issue?
A. During the years when baby boomers became young parents, employers began providing daycare centers and a variety of childcare options. Employers may need to think about adding adult daycare centers to the mix. But we need to consider the balance between economic development and the potential losses due to caregiving support. Businesses have two essential roles – to create jobs and to make profits, which provide tax revenues to support social programs. Ultimately, federal and state governments must provide programs that take the burden off of employers. Having said that, I still believe employers should play a role in providing assistance to workers who have caregiving responsibilities.
Q. What are your thoughts about land use planning, housing, and transportation for our aging population?
A. All too often cities and municipalities allow developers to create housing for individuals who will be aging in the wrong place. When people grow old and are isolated, they will not have the transportation, social services, and healthcare services they need. Decisions are being made to disperse and isolate an aging population, when, instead, we should be promoting smart growth, high density, affordable, accessible housing in places that provide health and social services.
Q. You co-wrote a book with experts in aging from Israel and Australia that was published in 2007, called Lessons From Three Nations. What do these two countries have in common with the United States?
A. Israel has an intense history with immigration because it actively sought out Jewish refugees from around the world. All refugees who come to Israel are entitled to a universal system of health, long-term care, and social benefits, thereby reducing the burden on the private sector. Israel addresses the needs of their immigrant elderly far better than the U.S. or Australia.
Australia created a very generous multicultural policy in the 1970s that welcomed immigrants from around the Pacific Basin. It gave that country tremendous economic vitality. Now however, they have a large influx of immigrant elders, and do not have the national policies to respond. So they are trying to find a balance.
The U.S. has a longer history of absorbing immigrants and a successful record of assimilating second- and third-generation immigrants. What we lack is universal health, long-term care and social services. We are still very much an individualistic society and in conflict over reforming immigration policies. The three countries have different experiences. What we have in common is that our populations are getting older and each one of our countries needs immigrants and minorities to replace our aging workforce.
Q. Do you have any final thoughts about how we can prepare for our aging population?
A. We have to accept the reality that we are growing old and becoming more diverse. Furthermore, we should see these two situations as an opportunity to keep the elderly in the community. We must find ways to make cities and municipalities user-friendly and accessible, so individuals can age in place. I would encourage our public officials to do all they can to invest in the younger immigrant and minority communities because they will be our next generation of taxpayers. I would also encourage everyone to look at aging and diversity as a tremendous asset.
Reprinted with permission from THE LINK, the official newsletter of the Los Angeles Commission on Aging.