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Expectations and Reality Clash When It Comes to Growing Older

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Dear Readers:

This week’s column focuses on growing older in a large context. The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, published a research report in July 2009 on “Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality.”  The report concludes that growing old isn’t as bad as people think.  However, at times, it’s not quite as good.

The results are based on a national telephone survey of a representative sample of 2,969 adults in the U.S. Here are some of the survey questions, answers and a few comments.

When does old age begin? At 68.  That was the average answer from all respondents.  The details matter.  Those age 19 to 29 said the average person becomes old at 60.  Middle-age folks put that age closer to 70 and those 65 and older said 74.  Men and women differed.  Women identified “old” at age 70; men said 66.

Comment: The latter may be one reason women lie about their age, particularly when dating in later life.  If men, in general, believe that 66 is old (which in our youth society may have a negative connotation), why would a woman on the dating scene let a man know she was 68, 70 or 72?

Are you old? Although the average designation of old was 68 years, individual respondents did not feel that answer applied to them.  About two thirds of those 75 and older said they did not feel old.

Comment: Bernard Baruch, the American financier and presidential adviser, had his own definition of old.  “To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am.”

What age would you like to live to? The average response was 89 years.  That’s less than what was reported in a 2002 AARP survey, which found that age 92 was the most desired life span.

Comment: In conducting retirement education programs, I have asked thousands of mid- life and older adults if they wanted to live to be 100. About 10 percent have raised their hands. Then I asked, “If you were healthy, would you like to live to be 100?”  All hands went up.

Are older adults happy? They are about as happy as everyone else, the respondents said.  The same factors that predict happiness in younger people predict happiness in older people.  Both generations value good health, good friends and financial security.  One difference between the generations is the relationship between marriage and happiness.  Marriage is a predictor of happiness in younger people, not in older people.

Comment: Relationships likely have a strong value in later life. For some, there is no need to seal that relationship with a marriage certificate.

Can you grow older and feel younger? Almost two-thirds of those 65 and older say they feel younger than their age.  One-third of those 65 to 74 felt they were 10 to 19 years younger.

Comment: We know that people feel old when their health fails and when they can no longer drive or live independently, and have trouble climbing stairs.

Is there a downside? Yes, about one-quarter of those 65 and older reported experiencing memory problems and about 20 percent reported they had a serious illness, are not sexually active or often feel sad or depression.  One in 10 felt they were a burden and not needed.

Comment: The feeling of not being needed is a challenge not only for older adults, but for our community and nation.  Older adults are the most underutilized resource in American society.  However, there is hope.

Today, there are many programs tapping what is called “mature talent.” For more information, go to encore.org, which emphasizes encore careers.  Also go to civicventures.org, which describes the programs sponsored by Civic Ventures, a San Francisco think-tank focusing on opportunities in the second half of life.

Note that a 4-year-old cannot wait to become “older.”  And a 15-year-old is antsy to become “old” enough to drive. Perhaps we will reach a time when “old” is a cherished word in our later years.

I’m working on it.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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