The American Age Wave Can Shape a New Vision for Successful Aging in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

The first baby boomer turned age 65 on January 1, 201 1. Because of their massive numbers, when baby boomers reach any stage of life, their issues - whether financial, interpersonal or physical - become the dominant social, political and marketplace themes of that time.

While the group's size consistentìy benefits those selling them products and services, it is often a disadvantage to individual baby boomers and to the social institutions responsible for their well-being. Their numbers have created fierce competition for everything they've wanted: school space, team and club memberships, college entrance vacancies and homes and careers. At each stage, they've had to fight their way through the demographic bottleneck created by their own numbers.

Just as society's institutions were grossly underprepared for the baby boom, we have done far too little to'prepare for the coming "age wave." Millions of new nursing home beds will not appear overnight. Teacher shortages were patched over in the 1950s by occasionally pressing bright high school graduates into service, but it takes far longer to produce a neurosurgeon or an oncologist. As a result of the unprecedented demographic changes underway, a variety of aging-related societal crises could shake the foundation of our nation and ratde all aspects of our lives.

Based on more than 35 years of study, experience, dialogue and analysis, I've concluded there are five aging-related challenges - that, if taken up and acted upon now, can prevent social crises toward which the baby boomers are heading.

CHALLENGE #1; RECALIBRATE THE OBSOLETE MARKERS OF AGING

Aging baby boomers will not only live longer than previous cohorts, they'll grow "old" much later. When Germany's Otto Von Bismarck picked age 65 to be the marker of old age in the 1 880s, the average life expectancy was age 45. On the day Social Security began, the average American could expect to live 63 years. During the 20th century, the average life expectancy vaulted upward to 78 years - and it's still climbing.

If life expectancies continue to elevate, without ongoing adjustments in the age of eligibility for "old age" entitlements, every intergenerational financing program, including employee pensions, Social Security and Medicare, could place untenable burdens on working generations, or could ultimately collapse. I propose the following solutions:

* Encourage people to retire when they are ready, and when they can afford to. Remove all economic and legal disincentives for older adults who wish to keep working.

* Replace our linear life paradigm with a new cyclical one that takes maturity into account as a time of new life pursuits and interests, and supports late blooming with educational and career redirection assistance.

* Unhinge old age from the anachronistic marker of age 65, and calibrate entitlements to rising longevity.

CHALLENGE #2: FOSTER HEALTHY AGING

While we have eliminated many childhood diseases, our healthcare system is woefully inept at preventing or treating chronic health problems that arise in life's later years.

Without a dramatic shift in scientific priorities and healthcare skills toward fostering healthy aging, our society could be crushed by debilitating and costly pandemics of chronic disease. I propose the following solutions:

* Commit far greater resources to the scientific research required to delay or eliminate the horrific diseases of aging - with particular attention to Alzheimer's disease.

* Establish and enforce standards of geriatric competency, and provide the academic training and continuing education necessary to ensure that all healthcare professionals are competent at caring for the complicated needs of the coming age wave.

* Establish a more humane, moral and respectful approach to late-life palliative care and the dying process.

CHALLENGE #3: SOUND A FINANCIAL WAKE-UP CALL

Approximately one third of baby boomers earn attractive salaries, have invested wisely and will benefit from their share of the more than $10 trillion in inheritances their parents will leave behind. …