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Longevity Brings Questions of Quality of Life

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: On April 3 I turned 80 and find that I am not taking “old age” very well.  I should be lucky because I went to school to learn to use my cell phone and also learned how to text.   But the number “80” scares me to no end.  Thanks for listening.        

Answer: We’ve come a long way.  How extraordinary that one can live to be 80 years old, given that in 1900 the average life expectancy was 47.

Yet, there is reason for some trepidation.   We don’t know what our later years have in store for us. We don’t know how we will feel or function in the next one, two or five years.

In terms of longevity, there is good news.  An 80-year-old woman can expect to live, on average, 9.22 more years. For men, that number is 7.62 years.

But the question remains, what will be the quality of life for the next nine years?  No one can answer that question.  However, we know that lifestyle becomes even more important as we age, with genes having less influence.

Attitude plays a role.  Dr. Walter Bortz, a noted Stanford University geriatrician and author of “Dare to be 100” (Simon & Schuster, 1996), describes 99 ways to live to be 100.  In a discussion I had with him a few years ago, he identified attitude as most important.    He noted that if we believe we will live that long, we will do all we can to reach that goal.

You are entering the fastest growing segment of our population.  That is the 85-plus group.  The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the 85 and older population could grow from a little over 5 million to 21 million by 2050.

Demography is one thing.  Quality of life is another.  Older adults share many concerns about their future.  Among them is health and end of life.  Older adults are less afraid of dying and more afraid of how they will exit our planet.

A second concern is finances, with a worry about outliving one’s retirement savings.  Maintaining independence, a highly valued aspect of later life, is another concern.  And if there is need for support services, the question remains, “Who will be there for me?”

The challenge is to address these concerns and take some action.  For example, complete a health directive and durable power of attorney.  Make sure your will or trust is up to date.  Review finances and consult with a financial professional.  If you have children, discuss your concerns with them and establish their role should you need them.  Examine housing options in the community.  Speak to friends about their plans and perhaps get some ideas from them.

Mortimer J Adler, a philosopher and educator, gave a speech at his 80th birthday party outlining rules and recommendations for achieving success and happiness.  His philosophy adds a bit of levity to an 80th birthday:

  • When considering health, vigor and vitality – never exercise.  Regarding diet, each only the most delicious calories.
  • Regarding marriage, if at first you don’t succeed, try again.
  • Don’t work more than seven days a week or 12 hours a day. Work harder as you get older – to grow younger with years.
  • Don’t take money for work you would do if you don’t need the money.
  • If you have the interest and ability, the best way to spend time is to write books; the next best is to edit them.  If you can’t do either, sell them.
  • Never write more than one book a year because it doesn’t pay.  Edit as many as possible and sell them by the hundred thousands.
  • Surround yourself with friends and associates with whom you can be almost as honest as you are with yourself.
  • Never give up, never say die and always say “if I die,” not “when I die.”

Your concerns are valid.  Here is a suggestion: Make a list.  In one column write concerns; in the next column write solutions.

The following categories will help you get started:  health, finances, living arrangements, family relationships, friends, end of life, having a purpose, maintaining independence and new opportunities.  End your list with a positive.  Hopefully this approach will get you in touch with knowing that you have some influence over the next decade.

And here’s to celebrating the 59th anniversary of your 21st birthday!  Have a wonderful birthday year.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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