Moving Forward: Reimagining How We Invest in Health, Wealth & Aging

One Black woman and two Black men walk in a forest

COVID-19 has exposed many hard truths about equity and inclusion that must be addressed as we rebuild from the pandemic.  

Inequality hurts us all—not just those who face disparities. In countries like the U.S. where inequality is the most extreme, we see higher rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease across all income levels [1] ; less trust in communities [2] ; and lower levels of happiness [3] . Studies show that by closing those gaps in health alone, we could add trillions of dollars of GDP in the coming years, not to mention creating longer, happier, more productive lives for millions of people.

Last week, AARP hosted over 1000 professionals from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors for a summit, Moving Forward: Reimagining How We Invest in Health, Wealth & Aging. World-renowned thought leaders and experts shared optimism, ideas, and solutions that can help us seize this opportunity for change.

Here are a few highlights from the summit:

IDENTIFYING DISPARITIES

Entrenched disparities have obstructed opportunities and inhibited longevity. Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, Past President of the American Public Health Association said, “You look at structures, policies, practices, norms, and values which are the elements of decision making … who's at the table and who's not, and what's on the agenda and what's not. This is very important for all of our conversations and structures.”

Jones continued, “Racism denial in this country is so seductive that if we just say a thing, in six months we may forget why and fall back into the somnolence of racism denial. So we must move into action … because if we start acting, we will not forget why we are acting.”

UNDERSTANDING THE DATA BEHIND THE DISPARITIES

The conditions and the general environment in which people at any age live, learn, work, play, and worship all have a tremendous influence on their health and longevity. AARP recently released new research that shows where you live can make a big difference in how long you live. Between 1980 and 2014, life expectancy rose in most U.S. counties, but the gap between the best-performing and worst-performing counties widened. In other words, the average 50 year-old in the best-performing county can look forward to living 14 years longer than a 50 year-old in the worst-performing county.   

With COVID in play, researchers expect that this pandemic will deepen these disparities even further in the coming years.

IDENTIFYING AND IMPLEMENTING THE SOLUTIONS

While the pandemic has exposed deeply ingrained problems, bold thinkers and organizations are laying the groundwork to nurture equitable solutions.

Addressing Economic Disparities
Minority business owners are less likely to have established relationships with large banks and credit unions, and they have been disproportionately left out by the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Nearly half of black-owned small businesses have closed. In response, The Magic Johnson Foundation has provided more than $325 million dollars in loans to support minority-owned businesses that are struggling in the pandemic.

Many believe that business can help address some of these structural inequities in society. “We've launched a whole new initiative engaging business and industry to lean in and lead on providing and creating what we call equality of opportunity,” said Rick Wade, Senior Vice President, Strategic Alliances and Outreach, U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “So, we've got to deal with some of the systemic issues that, quite frankly, were rooted in racial bias and policies in America.”

Improving Healthcare
COVID-19 has made it clear we must improve healthcare in underserved communities.

“How we deliver healthcare to everyone has almost not changed at all,” said Dr. Stephen Klasko, President of Jefferson University and CEO of Jefferson Health Systems. “We have Star Wars technology for individual patients in a Fred Flintstone healthcare delivery system. We shouldn't be surprised that the underserved are the ones that are getting hurt. And COVID didn’t change it, it just made it that much more obvious.”

Carina Edwards, CEO of Quil, noted that telemedicine is one solution. “Everything today that we've done to pivot and work from home and transition, what we've seen is the ability to interact with digital care… So there's a huge opportunity right now to capture and keep the momentum with this convergence to virtual care.”

Engaging the Private Sector
The Rockefeller Foundation works in partnerships that expand food distribution and rapid care to communities most impacted by the pandemic. Being free market, being capitalist doesn't mean that we can't also take care of those who are working hard, but not actually making ends meet, '' Eileen O’Connor of the Rockefeller Foundation says. “We need to do better on that.

Companies like Uber, Lyft, and Pepsi help with food distribution, and the Rockefeller Foundation works with community healthcare providers to deliver mobile testing units to areas with high exposure rates but few resources.

Rick Wade of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says change is starting to happen. “The good news is that the companies across various sectors and industries are doing good things. The challenge is that we've got to do more.”

Staying Optimistic
General Colin Powell says that to tackle the largest problems we are facing, leadership by example is critical. “You have to face the reality of the problem and not pretend it doesn't exist.”

Powell stresses that for leadership to work, people must want to follow you. “Optimism is a force multiplier,” he says. “It’s an attitude you have to have, you have to believe it will get better in the morning, and even if it doesn’t, believe it will in the next morning.”  

MOVING FORWARD

All people should have the ability to live a long, healthy life regardless of age, race, or income. Tackling these problems will require vigorous action and new ways of thinking. I invite you to watch the conference if you missed it. And I hope you’ll all join us at AARP in building equity, together.

Sources
[1] Disease and Disadvantage in the United States and in England
[2] How the Trust Trap Perpetuates Inequality
[3] Income Inequality Explains Why Economic Growth Does Not Always Translate to an Increase in Happiness

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