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What’s New in the Field of Aging

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

The Aging in America conference captured what’s new in the field of aging.

Sponsored by the American Society on Aging and the National Council on Aging, the conference drew 3,000 professionals wanting to gather new information, connect with colleagues, and forge new professional relationships with the intention of creating better environments, services and policies on behalf of older adults in America. Almost 700 sessions were offered.

Here are a few “aha” moments and new information as examples of the robust activities occurring in the field:

Caregiving: Author Gail Sheehy spoke of the predictable crisis in caregiving, which is considered the next passage for baby boomers. The average caregiver is a 48-year-old woman who spends about four years in a caregiver role. Half of these women work full time; one-third have children under 18.

Sheehy identified five “turnings” (or stages) typical of the caregiving years that may be useful in managing the responsibilities – and knowing you are not alone. The first is hearing the diagnosis for your loved one and mobilizing by getting the best opinions and comparing them. Second is identifying the new “normal,” knowing that traditional life is changing.

Third are the boomerangs, or interim, crises – only this time caregivers are a bit more prepared.  Fourth, caregivers believe they are playing God, thinking they are the only ones who can keep their loved ones alive. Fifth is the realization that “I can’t do this anymore,” finally acknowledging that help is needed.

Sheehy was caregiver to her late husband and used that experience, plus extensive interviews, for her soon-to-be published book, “Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence.”

Longevity: Dr. Robert Butler, first director of the National Institute on Aging, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and president and CEO of the International Longevity Center, presented an important perspective on longevity. “Longevity isn’t the problem of an aging society; health is,” he said.

One way we can postpone diseases of old age is by slowing the onset of aging. In studies of worms, fruit flies and mice, that onset has been slowed when calories are restricted. Pharmaceutical companies are looking for drug equivalents that will have the same effect in humans. (Note: Other factors also influence longevity.)

Postponing diseases of old age could become a reality. Eighty percent of cancers occur among those 60 and older. If we could delay the onset of aging, we could delay the onset of cancer and other diseases common in older age.

Unfortunately, delaying aging has not emerged as a funding priority. Butler noted that only $200 million out of a $30 billion National Institutes of Health budget is spent on research on the basic biology of aging. And the U.S. is not a leader in life expectancy (at birth). Forty-nine countries have a higher life expectancy than the U.S.; Japan ranks first.

Boomers: Steve French, managing partner of the National Marketing Institute, reported on his firm’s research examining diversity among boomers, an important factor for those wanting to capture the boomer market as customers or clients.

NMI research found that boomers fall into five categories:

“Arrivers” are in control of their destiny. They like products and services that enhance their self-direction.

“Strivers” are on their way, wanting products and services they believe will help them achieve. They buy anti-aging products.

“Worriers” want to feel better and have their stress reduced. Starbucks, for example, not only sells coffee. It also offers a place to meet up, gather and relax.

The fourth group is the “bewildered,” who are out of control and need help and guidance.

And the final group is the “Peter Pans” or “not nows.” They can’t be bothered to plan, take care of themselves or think about their future.

Those wanting to reach the midlife and older adult markets are moving away from categorizing them according to age.

Here are a few more tidbits:

Life stage is more important than age: Jerry Shereshewsky, CEO of, said that when looking at the aging market, age is less important than life stage.  What people have in common is their life experiences.  He noted that first time parents, whether age 22 or 46, face the same concerns.  And grandparents interested in their first grandchild want to know what to buy and where to buy it – regardless of their age.

Likewise, divorce, remarriage or loss of a loved one captures a shared moment in time.  Age is irrelevant.

We know that grandparents, whose average age is 53 years, generally have traditional values (no tattoos or body piercings) and are big buyers.  The baby diaper market is about $3 billion; grandparents account for about $1 billion of that.

Regardless of the statistics indicating that older consumers have discretionary income, advertising agencies often disregard the aging market.  According to Shereshewsky, Americans, on average, purchase 13 cars in their lifetime; seven are bought after age 50.  Yet car advertisements generally disregard older consumers.

Perhaps the age of advertising folks is one factor.  According to Shereshewsky, the average age is 26.

Not-so-empty nest: Fifty-five percent of grandparents own their homes with no mortgage, making them a go-to for adult children needing a roof over their heads.  Those returning adults could be 25, 35, 45 and even 55 or 60 years old.

With more generations living together, the concept of downsizing may no longer apply.  Rather than less space, older adults may need more space.  Kitchens may have to be redesigned for more than one cook, home office space may need expansion and more sleeping areas may be needed.

New rituals: The projected incidence of Alzheimer’s is alarming.  Approximately half of those 85 and older are suffering, or will suffer, from the disease.

What happens when a husband, whose wife suffers from extreme cognitive impairment with 24-hour care in a facility, comes to his clergyperson and asks for marital release?    He wants to have a meaningful relationship with his “significant” lady friend, yet recalls his commitment of “until death do us part.”

This subject was discussed by a member of the clergy, raising the possibility of needing new rituals as part of the longevity revolution.  The issue was raised for discussion only, with no easy answers.

Technology: The field of technology and aging is exploding.  In an era of scarcity, technology can play a significant role.  Robots connected to a physician may make bedside visits in hospitals.  One may be coached and monitored by wearing an electronic devise when doing physical therapy exercises at home.

Ninety percent of older adults take one or more prescription drugs a week, but medication compliance is a problem.  Now, a pill has been invented with a microchip.  You swallow the pill and the microchip sends a signal to someone on a medical team, or a family member, who  is informed that you have taken your pill.  This has not been taken to market but serves as just one example of remote patient monitoring.

Entrepreneurship: The field of aging is receptive to new ideas, products and services that improve one’s life.  Entrepreneur Arlene Harris, the originator of Jitterbug – an easy to use cell phone – provided tips on how to be a successful entrepreneur.

She suggests:  Pick a concern or problem that stirs your passion.  Use imagination and view the world without that problem.  Create a vision that will make the problem disappear.  Let your family and friends know they will see less of you because you are committed to your project.  Develop a strategy that is better than your competitors.  And pay attention to details.

With the commitment, energy and talent of the diverse professionals in the field of aging, the opportunities to age successfully are increasing. That’s good news.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved

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