Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

No Country for Old Men? Italian Families Facing the Challenges of an Aging Society

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

No Country for Old Men? Italian Families Facing the Challenges of an Aging Society

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

AGING AND LIFE COURSE: AN OVERVIEW

In the Western world, aging is a slow, gradual process generally lasting longer than in the past or in other societies. It is also an increasingly heterogeneous phenomenon (Tognetti Bordogna, 2007; Glen and Elder, 1975): if most developed countries have accepted the chronological age of 65 as a boundary for indicating an old person, there is no general agreement on the age at which one becomes old. Whilst there is currently no United Nations standard numerical criterion, the UN agreed cutoff is 60+. The common use of calendar age to mark the threshold of old age has become equivalent to biological age; at the same time, it is generally accepted that these two are not necessarily synonymous. This means that if age is generally measured chronologically, and birthdays are often important events, yet the term aging remains ambiguous.

The dramatic increase in the number of the over-65, coupled with their increased life expectancy, has expanded their category to include three sub-populations commonly referred to as thq young-old, the old {or middle-old), and the oldest-old (or old-old) groups.

The young-old (65-74) are the so-called baby boomers, that is, individuals bom during the post-World War II baby boom (1946-1964), according to the US Census Bureau (2010). Within this group, even in Italy, one can find many active seniors, especially grandparents who play a fundamental role in family caregiving and actively participate in their communities through civic engagement and voluntary associations (Rossi and Meda, 2010). In fact, at this stage of life the concept of active aging (developed by the European Commission and also used in Human Resources management) is most fully expressed. Active aging is a recent concept: it evokes the idea of longer activity, with delayed retirement and working practices adapted to the employee's age. According to WHO, active aging is also the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance the quality of life as people become older. Older people who retire from work, become ill or live with disabilities can still actively contribute to their families, communities and society as a whole, as aging takes place within the context of friends, work associates, neighbours and family members. This is why interdependence and inter-generational solidarity are important features of active aging.

The old or middle-old are individuals aged 75-84, while the oldest-old (85+) make the fastest-growing segment of the total population. Their growth rate is twice that of the 65+, and almost four times that of the total population. In the United States, for instance, this group now represents 10% ofthe older population; it will more than triple from 5.7 million in 2010 to over 19 million by 2050. In Italy, the Fifteenth Census has highlighted that the 65+ have increased from 18.7% to 20.8% in the last ten years (Istat, 2013a), and that the share of 85+ has risen from 2.2% of the total population to 2.8%. Moreover, people aged 95-99 have increased by 78.2% and those aged 100+by 138.9%.

Compared to other classes of elderly, the oldest-old (85+) are more vulnerable and prone to experience greater social isolation, bad health conditions, and poor functional and biological performance, because of their age. The oldest-old also tend to be constrained by a number of variables, such as social class, housing conditions, cultural consumption, and the quality of their relational exchanges, which tend to deteriorate as time goes on.

Further differentiations are sometimes made between:

- the elderly in good health versus those partially or totally dependent;

- the elderly living with family members versus those living alone; those living in their homes versus those staying in nursing homes;

- the economically independent elderly versus those facing severe financial hardship.

Besides, the inter-individual variability associated with aging becomes important when defining the senior classes for research purposes. …

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