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Global panel says older people undervalued

May 25, 1999

Global Aging commissionBy DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer




SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Older people possess some of the greatest wisdom and experience, but when they try to enter other careers after retirement they are sometimes shunned by employers, an expert on aging said Tuesday.

Because the older segment of the population is expected to increase significantly in coming years, countries around the world need to tap into the expert knowledge of its senior citizens to grow economically, a group of experts on aging from around the world concluded at the end of a three-day conference at the Bavarian Inn here.

Organizations including the United Nations, West Virginia University, World Bank and the World Health Organization have been studying the way elderly populations are perceived and are working on polices to improve the lives of older people.

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The effort started in 1994 when representatives from countries around the world went to Charleston to discuss issues facing seniors.

West Virginia became the center for the discussions for several reasons, including the fact WVU is one of the few schools in the country to devote a facility to the study of gerontology, according to Dr. Hana Hermanova, director of WVU's Center on Aging.

The state's rural atmosphere also made it a natural setting for the efforts, according to organizers of this week's Expert Group on Rural Aging.

The issues facing the elderly are nearly universal, said Robert D'Alessandri, dean of WVU's School of Medicine.

Not only is the potential of the older generation sometimes overlooked, but their care and support systems are under stress, said D'Alessandri.

Home care, in which seniors receive medical assistance at home rather than in an institution, is vital for the health of the population, D'Alessandri said.

But federal cutbacks in Medicare are threatening availability of home care, D'Alessandri said.

D'Alessandri is expected to look to Congress for help in reversing the trend, according to WVU spokesman Bill Case.

Meanwhile, West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood announced a $5 million initiative to upgrade senior centers across the state and to replace ones that are outdated.

"I want these senior centers to be more than a good place to get lunch every day," Underwood said.

Among the panel's recommendations are increased emphasis on lifelong learning, added investment in preventive health systems for all age groups and more focus on rural economic development.

Rural economic development is vital to help young families support their elders, said Andrezj Wojtczak, dean at the Warsaw School of Public Health and Social Medicine in Poland.

Representatives from 16 countries took part in the conference.

Another conference is scheduled for June of next year in Charleston to work on policies. Ultimately, the United Nations is expected to issue a report advising countries on effective gerontology policies.

"It's national governments that have to make the commitment ... to provide the funding," said U.N. representative Gary Andrews.

About one in four people in the U.S. is 60 years of age or older, said D'Alessandri, and that figure is expected to jump to one in three in 20 years.

West Virginia is currently ranked fourth among states in its percentage of people over 65, D'Alessandri said.

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