By: Jane Bavineau – Vice President of Sheltering Arms Senior Services
It comes as no surprise to you or anyone else these days when you hear that our population is aging. You may not know the statistics, but you know it’s true and you have certainly heard about the baby boomers who will increasingly dominate our nation’s population, both in real numbers and in philosophy. But rarely has a topic been so relevant to each and every one of us and yet so consistently ignored. Why is that? Aging is not what happens to someone else; it’s not something only other countries have to contend with. It’s about us — as individuals, as members of families, as a community, and as a country.
How old is “old”? And, if growing old is just another developmental stage in life, why should we worry about it until we have to? Besides, it’s much more fun to think about the traveling we will do when we retire, or the golf we will play, or the volunteer work we’ll dive into than it is to think about the “what if’s” of the aging process: What if I face a health challenge and can’t do everything that’s on that retirement plan? What if I fall and break a hip, as Aunt Mary did, and can’t take care of myself for a while? What if I end up with something like Alzheimer’s disease and can’t live on my own any longer? There is a long list of both dreams and what if’s in the aging process, and together they make growing old very, very personal and sometimes scary.
Aging is also a family affair. The two greatest fears about growing old are the fear of having to live in a nursing home and the fear of becoming a burden to family members. The reality is that only about 5% of older adults live in nursing homes. But another reality is that 80% of the care provided to older loved ones is provided by family.
The aging of the population also affects our neighborhoods and communities. If a neighborhood is to be vibrant and its residents engaged, it must embrace the assets and address the needs of all populations and age groups. It must value the wisdom of seniors, it must create opportunity for them to form and strengthen friendships, and it must offer support to those who are vulnerable. Older adults must be able to safely come out of their houses, and neighbors must be willing to go in when they’re needed.
Finally, this so-called graying of America is about just that — America, our country. It tips the conversation in everything from health care to housing. It has implications for the workforce, entitlement programs, economic security, and public spending. It puts pressure on Social Security and corporate pensions, and it drives a wedge between the young and the old. Proposed solutions are caught up in the quagmire of our political divisions, and consensus about changes that should be made in policy won’t come any time soon.
So maybe all of this is why we ignore the topic of aging. The realities can be downright discouraging on many levels, and the implications are often overwhelming. But the fact remains — we are an aging society, and we should stop thinking about that with dread and start looking for the opportunities and promise that the facts hold. Let’s start that conversation now – what do you want YOUR future to hold as you age? What’s important to YOU? What does it mean to you to age with dignity and independence? How old is old?