Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Achieving Universal Participation of Older Adults: An Exploration of Its Challenges and Spiritual Foundations

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Achieving Universal Participation of Older Adults: An Exploration of Its Challenges and Spiritual Foundations

Article excerpt


Humanity has reached a stage never observed before: a period of time where the majority of the world population is aging. Soon, older adults will outnumber children (World Health Organization). For instance, in Canada, by 2036 it is estimated that 25% of the population will be aged sixty-five and over (Statistics Canada). Many nations will have among their population the largest proportion of older adults ever experienced before.

This demographic change is driven by two phenomena: a decline in fertility and an improvement in longevity (World Health Organization). In other words, contemporary families tend to have fewer children than did their parents and grandparents. Also, improvements and new discoveries in health, technology, and treatment of disease enable us to live longer. It is more common now than ever before to meet healthy and active individuals aged eighty, ninety, and a hundred years old. This phenomenon of aging communities will certainly impact many aspects of society that are presently still difficult to foresee.

In collectivist societies, older adults are often considered very important members of the community for their life experience, wisdom, and as living repositories of the collective history (Phillips et al.; Aboderin). In more individualist societies, such as Western societies,1 especially since the initial phases of industrialization, older adults are often considered a burden (Achenbaum; Featherstone and Hepworth). However, globalization, demographic changes, and economic insecurity are likely to negatively change the perception of older adults, even in the collectivist societies (Vos et al.; Phillips et al.).

This negative perception of older adults is manifested through the apparition of what we call "apocalyptic demography" discourses (Lefrançois; McPherson and Wister; Gee and Gutman) and generation-based public policy debates (MacManus). These economic and social discourses present in news media, commercials, and political speeches encourage the idea that older members of our society are less active, do not contribute to the economy, and consume public services that younger members cannot afford to support. Some media have coined the phrase "silver tsunami" to depict the possible economic and social consequences of adults and seniors serving as the major proportion of the population (Globe and Mail). On the one hand, research has demonstrated that the impact of these demographic changes is not as "apocalyptic" as some want us to think (World Health Organization). On the other hand, many older adults face exclusion and loneliness (Cornwell et al.).

One explanation for the exclusion of older adults from the life of society is a specific form of prejudice based on age, what is commonly alluded to as "ageism." Butler defines ageism as "a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old. . . . Ageism allows the younger generation to see older people as different from themselves, thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings" (35). Discrimination occurs when people are denied opportunities and resources based solely on their age; prejudice occurs when people who are perceived to be old are viewed stereotypically and negatively (Bytheway 338).

Looking at this condition from the perspective of the Bahá'í Faith, we find that one of the fundamental principles of this religion is the abolition of all types of prejudice, while another principle advocates "universal participation"- "the involvement of a growing number of people in a collective process of learning, one which is focused on the nature and dynamics of a path that conduces to the material and spiritual progress of their villages or neighbourhoods" (Office of Social and Economic Development 6). Such a concept includes people of all ages as participants in the betterment of human society.

However, before we can abolish this and other prejudices, we need to understand their origin. …

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