Preparing for that transition to your golden years

The article below appeared in the February 13  issue of Health with Perdana, a regular column in The Star by Perdana University faculty members. This week’s article is contributed by Dr. Sangeeta Kaur, a Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology and Public Health medicine at the Perdana University-Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Every stage in life brings an individual to a new beginning, especially when transitioning between their primary roles in life (e.g. child, adult, spouse, parent and so on).

Factors such as lifestyle, educational achievement, social class and health behaviours mediate between early-life social situations and one’s health.

For example, childhood adversity might restrict educational opportunities, limit socioeconomic wealth and resources, and influence health behaviours, thus resulting in poorer health later on in life.

Hence, early childhood experiences are crucial, especially when interacting with family or societal members, who can be critical players in a child’s future aspirations.

When one becomes a young adult, such aspirations may alter based on the possibilities available to the person.

By the time young adults leave school, many are told that higher education will prepare them to tackle and embrace the challenges and opportunities the world has to offer.

Many young people may struggle, yet aim to do their best, while eagerly preparing themselves to start the next phase of their lives.

The thought of independence and future aspirations can transform young adults in later life.

Then, as they marry and form their own household, their dreams and aspirations may change again to align with their own family’s wellbeing.

Hence, a new journey begins when one settles down and starts a family.

Once young adults transition into mid-life, starting between the ages of 35 to 45 and ending at 60 or 65, they may face different priorities.

With their children leaving the home and becoming independent in their turn, suddenly, these older adults are left with questions or concerns over what comes next.

Meeting the challenges

At times like this, one starts to face issues that revolve around psychological, sociological or biological events, signalling either the beginning or the end of this period of life.

Some factors of concern revolve around job insecurity, exiting from the labour market or what retirement means.

Hence, suddenly, instead of an exciting transition into a new phase of life, most of us are left with the challenges of maintaining an independent lifestyle with declining physical and mental health, and financial instability, hovering over us.

These concerns are daunting and an ageing individual can become overwhelmed with fear of what the future holds.

Countries and governments are aware of such issues and are striving to tackle the unavoidable challenges with this form of demographic transition.

Such national strategic plans are usually aligned with global initiatives like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to manage such changes.

One such SDG emphasises age-friendly and responsive healthcare systems, which is vital to ensure the ageing population’s quality of life.

However, quality of life doesn’t just revolve around health; it must also address individuals’ overall wellbeing.

Thus, many innovative strategies are in place to provide a range of coordinated services that will address the complex needs of this ageing global population.

Here, the World Health Organization (WHO) is tasked with bringing together governments, civil society, international agencies, professionals, academia, the media and the private sector, to align their respective efforts with the SDGs.

National action points

All of this is gearing up for the Decade of Healthy Ageing, observed from 2021 to 2030.

This means that countries and governments must ensure fundamental human rights and wellbeing by addressing four main action points.

Point one: Create an age-friendly environment in current societies.

This refers to an enabling environment that permits us to grow, live, work, play and age in an environment which will foster such goals.

Secondly, combatting ageism.

This refers to the evidence that indicates societies often stereotype (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discriminate (how we act) people based on their age.

Thirdly, focusing on integrated care.

The quality of care should be safe, affordable and adequate, with access to essential medicines, vaccines, dental care and assistive technology all made available to those in need.

At the same time, financial hardship due to medical expenses needs to be managed well.

Finally, the fourth point looks at long-term care.

All these action points are crucial and needed, especially for the retired.

These action points are in place because evidence from the WHO 2021 report indicated that at least 14% of all people aged 60 years and over – more than 142 million people – are currently unable to meet all of their basic daily needs.

Individual responsibility

However, we cannot depend on the government’s efforts in sustaining care for our later life.

This brings the responsibility back onto individuals to ensure that they are equipped for such changes later in life.

So how does one prepare themselves for such changes?

What are the preparatory steps one can take to ensure a positive long-term impact on the nature of ageing?

Evidence indicates that those who engage in healthy behaviours throughout adulthood are likely to reap the benefits in later life.

But is an individual able to maintain healthy behaviours throughout life?

Let’s look at the current situation when one transitions into their fifties.

At the global level, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – an international organisation that works to build better policies for better lives – projected that 22% of non-obese older adults aged 50-59 are more likely to be employed.

Now, this will be challenging in Malaysia, as half of our population below 40 years of age are already obese, according to the 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS).

In addition, in November 2020, the World Bank Malaysia report revealed that those aged 50 to 74 find it challenging to gain employment as more than half in this group struggle to secure a proper job, especially women.

An article on the discrimination in race and graduate hiring practices in Malaysia, published in the Journal of Asia Pacific Economy, also revealed that older adults belonging to minority groups have lower chances of securing an interview, compared with other groups.

Hence, the ability to have financial stability as an older adult in Malaysia is undoubtedly precarious.

Therefore, everyone must plan well and prepare themselves for changes in middle age.

Plan well

Such planning must address the above-mentioned four-action points for healthy ageing.

We must plan or advocate and actively ensure an age-friendly environment, change the perception of ageism, support the push for integrated care, and understand what options are in place for long-term care for an individual retiring at 65.

As individuals, communities and nations, we all must ensure that viable options are in place for us as we age.

Much effort is required to prepare Malaysians to re-envision the threshold from midlife to older adulthood.

There is a need to create dialogue around the normalcy of change and its pivotal role.

Older adults must increase their awareness of the intricacies of the ageing process.

In other words, one can reduce the intolerance for uncertainty by normalising it.

Being prepared for emerging elderhood is a step toward awareness and normalisation.

At the crux of identity formation and the role of uncertainty is the construction of a self-defining story.

The transitioning times during middle life can be daunting.

However, it is also a perfect opportunity to understand that the intersection of growth and decline will naturally occur during youth to late adulthood, which is unavoidable.

But the growth path, which means knowledge, experience and emotional regulation, are all essential skills that one must enhance as one ages.

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