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November 25, 1997

Aging in America:

What to Expect and How to Prepare

by Roma Hanks, Ph.D.

What will you do with 20 years of retirement? How will you manage working and taking care of your grandparents and great-grandparents? How can you afford $3,000/month for life in a long-term care facility?

The "Graying of America" has implications for each of us -- new opportunities for education, work, and retirement; changes in the generational structure of our families; and increases in the cost of healthcare over our lifetime. During the 20th century, the number of Americans under age 65 has tripled, while the number over 65 has increased by a factor of eleven! And the Elder Boom has just begun. Older people comprise approximately 13% of our population today, but by the middle of the new century, more than 20% of the American population will be aged over 65, and 5% will be aged over 85. From 1960-1994, the number of people aged 85 and over grew a staggering 274%. The fastest-growing age group in the U.S. population is people aged 65 and over.

The increase in the proportion of elders to younger people in the American population is a result of several factors: the aging of the Baby Boom generation, increased longevity, and decreased birth rate. While a diagram of the generations of an American family once appeared as a "pyramid," with lots of young people and very few elders, today it looks more like a "bean pole," with nearer equal numbers in all living generations. By the middle of the 21st century, the pyramid will have inverted, with more older people than young in our families.

Although 3 out of 4 elders in the 65-74 age group and 2 out of 3 in the 75-and- over age group rate their health as good, we all face the possibility of dependency in old age. Only 1% of people aged 65-74 live in nursing homes, but 25% of those over 85 live in facilities that provide for their health care. Of those non-institutionalized elders over age 85, some 50% need help with simple daily activities such as dressing or bathing or taking medication. Most of the care for elders is provided by family members -- usually women. Now, the ratio of over-85 elders to potential caregivers in the age range from 65-74 is about 10 to 100. By the year 2050, that ratio will be 29 to 100. As people live longer, those in mid-life will find themselves caring for both parents and grandparents, and young adults may be called upon to care for great-grandparents as well. Many of the myths about aging that have guided program development and research are going to give way to the realities of an aging society. Many of us equate aging with being poor or sick. Actually, only 15% of elders live at or below the poverty line. The majority of people over 65 live in their own homes and are healthy and active. Sometimes elders provide care rather than receiving aid themselves. Almost two million grandparents are full-time caregivers for their grandchildren. Grandparent caregivers increasingly fill gaps created by parental absence due to divorce, work demands, chronic illness, substance abuse, incarceration, or other problems in the parent generation.

The myth of retirement has been that it is a leisurely time of life that comes as a reward for long-term service in the labor force and that there is a relatively brief period between withdrawal from the labor force and dying. Since the mid-1980s, retirement has been used as a workforce reduction strategy by companies looking to improve their competitive position in the world market and as a method of career self-management by older workers. People are now retiring in their mid-fifties. An American who is 65 years old can expect 17 years of remaining life. Depending on the timing of retirement, we can expect up to a quarter century of life after leaving our primary job.

Elders are using these post-retirement years to launch new careers, gain more education, travel, volunteer, and express their creativity. The growing popularity of Elderhostel, an international travel-and-learn program for seniors, is one indication of the new definition of retirement. The Odyssey lifelong learning program here at the University of South Alabama allows seniors to take and teach non-credit courses for a small annual fee. I recently served on the doctoral committee of a man who was 75 years old when he received his Ph.D. He plans to write a book from his dissertation and to start a business consulting with elder fitness programs.

With the changing face of America's elder population comes the need to rethink our attitudes and social services for elders. Seniors of the new millennium will be living on their own, healthy, active, and involved with community and family life. Programs are needed for healthy seniors as well as those who need assistance with daily living or those whose health is poor. Transportation is a priority in senior services, especially for rural areas. Wellness programs, including health education and exercise, help seniors stay active and avoid illness and injury.

Families currently provide over 3/4 of the care needed by non-institutionalized elders. Women have historically provided most of the care, but as women have entered the labor force in increasing numbers, they have become less available for caregiving. Adult day care, respite care, and the involvement of men and adolescents in caregiving are essential if family care is to continue to supplement our healthcare system for those elders who do need special care.

For the first time in its history, America is moving away from being a youth- oriented society. Baby Boomers will spend more time retired from a career than they spent becoming educated. Women will spend more years helping their aging parents than they spent raising their own children. Housing, advertising, health care, marriage and family life, politics, and religion will all feel the wave of change created by an aging society. How will these changes affect you? Dr. Deepak Chopra, emerging guru of growing old in the new age, reminds us that "the aging body is responding to social conditioning." In the words of the Indian sages, "People grow old and die because they see others grow old and die." The face of aging is changing. Seniors in the new millennium will be healthy, active, creative, and involved with their families and communities well into their eighth decade. Preparing for aging is no longer equated with preparing to die -- rather with preparing to live!

Dr. Roma Hanks is associate professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at the University of South Alabama and director of the gerontology program.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL