The Importance of Behavior

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Most of us want to become old, but we worry about being old.

Baltes and Baltes (1998)

The ultimate goal in the investigation of human aging is to extend and improve the quality of life for increasing numbers of elderly. Worldwide fertility rates have declined, coincident with increases in life expectancy, creating a large and expanding bulge at the top of the global population pyramid. In the United States, for instance, more than one in five Americans will be

65 years or older by 2030 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004), a trend that is fast becoming global and carries immense implications for all world cultures and economies. Moreover, in addition to aging of the general population, demographics within the aged group itself are also shifting as the category of oldest old (80+ years) is growing faster than any other segment of elderly. Now, along with increased longevity provided by scientific achievements, science should also work to increase life satisfaction and happiness for growing numbers of aged. Extended years should be years lived well, if possible. It is our view that aging research should be collaborative across disciplines; as an understanding of the biological bases of aging without consideration of behavior or individual differences, or vice versa, is an incomplete understanding.

Although science has greatly extended human longevity, efforts to improve the quality of life experience for older people must increase if we are to avoid creating a generation of isolated, lonely, and inactive elders, a trend that is already a sad reality in industrialized Japan, where birthrates have fallen to 1.29 children per female and numbers of elderly are growing rapidly. This means that, within the next few years, Japan will have more elderly people than they have children (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). Traditionally, Japanese culture places adult children in extended natal homes that provide for the inclusion of elders. However, current demographic pressures and economic realities are removing that option while elder care facilities are either inadequate or completely lacking in many parts of Japan. Therefore, an increasing number of Japanese elders are living solitary lives. In an attempt to compensate for increasing elder isolation and loneliness, healing partner dolls are currently being marketed to Japanese families of the isolated aged. These interactive dolls are personalized, capable of using up to 1200 different spoken phrases, and can be programmed in accordance with the owners' sleep-wake schedule (Suzuki, 2005). Demand for these companion dolls is high in Japan, and many elders who have them report not feeling alone any more and say they are raising the dolls ''as they did their own children.''

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