10/10/2013 02:36 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2013

International Day of Older Persons Opportunity or Obstacles?

"I am not useful anymore." This heartbreaking statement by an elder in China concluded a recent news article on fraying families and changing cultures in a world growing older each day.
It's true, societies are aging. But along with this change comes tremendous opportunity... and many obstacles. This week the United Nations and member countries celebrate the International Day of Older Persons. It's not just a time to bring attention to demographic changes, it's a time for action.
Family bonds are fraying even in cultures such as China's, where respect and caring for elderly relatives was once sacrosanct. Countries like China, India and South Korea are attempting to weave the family fabric through laws. Rather than relying on children to support their parents, governments now feel compelled to force children to take responsibility. Laws now make it illegal for children to fail to support their parents or to inherit from their parents if they don't support them during their twilight years.
So far the results have been less than stellar. In India, for example, parents are hesitant to sue their adult children for support. They worry about further destroying the family bond. Even if parents do take action, their children are unlikely to be able to stretch their financial resources beyond their immediate household.
In contrast, the United States and other countries have provided for elders through social insurance systems like Social Security and pension schemes. Older adults contribute throughout their working lives and later receive a benefit they paid into. This frees up their adult children to invest in the next generation.
However, whether by contract or compact, these laws and systems fail to address the growing social isolation among older adults and their feelings of uselessness or lack of purpose. Given that by 2042 one in five U.S. residents will be age 65 or older, we can't afford to squander the promise of this population of healthy, educated elders.
The U.S. and other countries need to get serious about what we expect and want from our growing cadre of elders.
Next year, in 2014, the United Nations is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family. A primary focus of that celebration is to uphold and support intergenerational solidarity and social cohesion.
Every nation should use the Year of the Family as an opportunity to strengthen intergenerational bonds by celebrating each generation's unique contributions to family and community while finding new ways to encourage solidarity among the ages.
Like it or not, the world is graying. Let's see this as a good thing and look to our elders to share their wisdom and experience. And let's agree that we must ensure that no human being -- of any age -- should ever feel, "...I am not useful anymore."
Donna Butts is the lead author a background paper on intergenerational solidarity and social cohesion for the United Nations' observance of the International Year of the Family.