Across the globe, one medical condition is certain: regardless of geography, language, politics or economic development, we will all get older. While we hope new technologies and medical advances will improve the care and treatment of age-related diseases, aging presents a range of issues that cannot be addressed in the lab. The aging population impacts all societal needs: health care, the workplace, housing, family relationships, and the role of the government in providing services. It requires the best minds from around the world to join together and share innovations, best practices and new paradigms across borders and cultures. Age-related health and wellness is the kind of 21st century global challenge that our nation’s flexible and dynamic public diplomacy initiatives such as the Fulbright and Humphrey Programs are particularly well-suited to address. America’s 65-and-over population is projected to nearly double over the next three decades, from 48 million to 88 million by 2050, according to a new report commissioned by the National Institute on Aging. Global life expectancy is projected to climb from 68.6 years in 2015 to 76.2 years in 2050, while the global population aged 80 and older is expected to more than triple from 126.5 million to 446.6 million, and is predicted to quadruple in some Asian and Latin American countries by 2050. Without a doubt, we are all in this together, and we all have much to learn. Because there is such a strong cultural component to how a society treats its aging population, it is especially important to have individuals who can share their experiences and knowledge in a way that is both culturally sensitive and attuned to a country’s changing needs. As the Institute of International Education nears its centennial in 2019, we have a unique vantage point to see the power of connecting people across countries and cultures to address shared global problems. In our experience administering the Fulbright Scholar Program and the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program on behalf of the programs’ sponsor, the U.S. Department of State, we have seen how effective this kind of international exchange can be in bringing together doctors, hospitals, universities, governments and private sector resources. We would like to share just a few examples, to inspire others in all fields. These individuals demonstrate how important it is not only to immerse yourself in and learn from another country’s practices, but also to bring them back and share with colleagues and students at home. Peggy McFarland, a professor of social work and Director of Field Instruction at Elizabethtown College, spent a year as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar in Vietnam, teaching at the Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City and helping the country’s Ministry of Health and community agencies examine the problems of a rapidly increasing elderly population. She brought a wealth of experience through her research on Alzheimer’s and as cofounder of a firm that provides eldercare management. But equally important was her prior experience travelling with students to assist in orphanages throughout Vietnam. Her role as a Fulbrighter and cultural ambassador positioned her well to advise Vietnam’s health providers on creating new services, and specifically to allow social workers to work in the hospitals – a recommendation which is now starting to be implemented. “Building relationships is people to people,” she noted, as she worked not only to teach, but to “make a cultural connection and form a relationship between countries.” She has brought these lessons back to students and faculty at her university and to her continued work in meeting the needs of the elderly at home in Pennsylvania. While not everyone can spend a year abroad, the Fulbright Specialist Program provides flexible, short-term opportunities for professors and professionals to go on timely assignments to complete specific collaborative projects at the request of an institution in the host country. Lisa M. Brown, the Director of the Trauma Program at Palo Alto University, served as a Fulbright Specialist with the University of the West Indies, in Mona, Jamaica. Her extensive clinical and research experience on aging, health, vulnerable populations, disasters, and long-term care was integral to helping the university develop a new masters of public health in gerontology. Her work in shaping the curriculum will have important and lasting impact on how aging persons are treated at the national and community level. Danni Xiang was the Vice-Chief Physician for the Department of Geriatric Medicine at Huadong Hospital in Shanghai when she came to the United States on a Humphrey Fellowship, which is part of the Fulbright family of programs. The Humphrey Program provides opportunities for accomplished mid-career professionals from designated developing countries of Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, the Near East, South and Central Asia, and the Western Hemisphere to the United States for one year of non-degree graduate study and practical professional experience. Their experiences studying and working alongside U.S. counterparts and Fellows from other countries prepare them for leadership and promotes global connections in critical fields such as public health. At Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, Dr. Xiang shared her perspectives on her work and acquired new skills and knowledge in epidemiology, health policy and management and data management related to aging. When her Fellowship ended, she applied for a Humphrey Alumni Impact Award to expand the impact of the knowledge and skills gained during her Humphrey Fellowship. Jointly-funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and by IIE through its Fulbright Legacy Fund, the award enabled her to return to Shanghai with her advisor, Dr. Ted Johnson, Chief of the Division of General Medicine and Geriatrics at Emory, to train community doctors in techniques such as Comprehensive Geriatric Assessment and how to work with a multi-disciplinary team, including geriatricians, physical therapists, pharmacists, geriatric nurses, neurologists, and nutritionists. Her training helped family doctors learn to identify potential problems, integrate treatment of diseases, promote functional status, prevent life-threatening injuries, reduce hospitalization rates and keep patients living in the community longer. She expects the knowledge she shared to create a new model for managing the older patients in the future. These are only a few examples of how we can learn from professionals and educators in other countries and cultures, and return home to share and magnify the impact of that knowledge. The bonds that are formed through this kind of exchange will serve our societies on many levels. The Fulbright Program, funded by an annual appropriation from the U.S. Congress with generous contributions from and partnerships with foreign governments, universities and private sector partners, is the best investment we can make in improving the world we share. About the Author: María de los Ángeles Crummett is Deputy Vice President for Scholar Exchanges and Executive Director, CIES at the Institute of International Education (IIE) and Judith S. Gibson is Director of Global Professional Exchanges at IIE, the leader in developing and implementing cross-border strategies and programs that harness the power of international education.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.