Meet the 'Shaws': A Demographic Portrait of Older Americans

Article excerpt

Who is the typical older American? The answer is a sketch that leaves much of the texture and ambiance in the paint box, not on the canvas. For example, despite the fact that the typical older family in the United States had a median income of $23,084 in 2000, people like Corrine Gable-like 47% of African American women-lives alone and in poverty. Such a dollar figure similarly fails to account for the Rotondos, who have spent their life savings to care for Mrs. Rotondo, who has Alzheimer's disease. Also, the median calculation offers no inkling of multimillionaire Albert Myers, who at age 75 started yet another business.

Yet, drawing a demographic portrait can provide a useful way to give a human dimension to the vast amount of statistical information-proportions, averages and medians-available about population groups. This article presents a portrait of the fastest-growing population segment in the United States, people age 65 or older. It is based on the information presented in the new reference guide I coauthored, Aging: Demographics, Health, and Health Services (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003), and current statistics from other sources.


Let me introduce you to the typical older American of 2003. We'll call her Mrs. Shaw, because older women outnumber older men by a three-to-two margin. Like eight in nine elders, she is a non-Hispanic white. Mrs. Shaw is 74 years. old. She lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the assassination of John Kennedy and the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. When she was born, only one in 20 people in the United States was age 65 or older.

Today, elders represent one in eight people in the United States, one in four voters, and the largest and most affluent group of prime-time television viewers. As part of the mature market, they control $1.6 trillion in spending power.

Like half of typical elders, Mrs. Shaw lives with her husband, who is 78, although her equally typical neighbor, Mrs. Frank, lives alone. The Shaws own a single-family home in California. On a typical day, this typical couple work around the house, and occupy most of their leisure time by watching television, according to findings reported by A. L. Horgas and colleagues in "Daily Life in Very Old Age" (The Gerontologist, October 1998). Mrs. Shaw does volunteer work, the pair belong to AARP, and they contribute to charity and devote time to their religion. The Shaws own a car and take a vacation every year. At home, Mrs. Shaw says that she would like her husband to help more around the house. He says, "I'd like more interesting meals and to have sex more often."

The Shaws both retired at age 62 and receive $1,216 a month from Social Security. Their yearly income is about $25,000. The couple is loyal to brand names and go out of their way to shop at stores that give good service. They feel that advertisers are obsessed with youth. They have a computer and know that their age group is the fastest-growing segment of the online market ("Older Women Go Online," New York Times, July 3, 2000). The Shaws are heavy users of repair, lawn-care and home-improvement services (Best Customers, New Strategist, 1999). The couple's top five expenses are transportation, shelter, healthcare, food at home and utilities. Healthcare costs take 10-14% of their income. Also, concerned about inheritance issues, they have started to distribute some of their assets to their children.

The Shaws are not heavy drinkers, and they do not smoke. Mr. Shaw is overweight, and the couple does not get regular vigorous exercise. They regularly take vitamins. Mr. and Mrs. Shaw eat less fatty food than their parents did when they were older adults, and they eat more grains, tomatoes, deep-green vegetables, nuts and fruit. However, their fat consumption is above recommended levels, and their intake of fiber and vitamin E does not meet nutritional guidelines defined by the U. …