Last fall I gave a speech titled “It ain’t easy being a little old lady,” and got lots of laughs. But the things happening to old people these days aren’t funny. They’re sad or scary or alarming. Things like these:
The global demographic imbalance
In nearly every country in the world, there are too many old people in proportion to young and middle-aged people. This demographic imbalance is often chalked up to the fact that people are living longer than they used to. And so they are, but several other factors are even more significant.
One has been a substantial increase in the life expectancy at birth. In the U.S., for example, between 1900 and 1950—due to advances in controlling infectious childhood diseases—infants who survived to the age of 20 could expect to live to the age of 66. And those who lived to 60 could expect to live another 15 years.
Another factor was a decline in the birthrate. Taken together, they have caused a demographic imbalance. It’s not a case of too many old people but of too few young people. The problem arises from a tendency to see old people as an enormous, unproductive, and unhealthy millstone around the national neck.
Great uncertainty about the economy
The financial collapse in September, 2008 and the associated decline in property values was catastrophic for millions of people. It hit close to home. In what turned out to be remarkably bad timing, I retired that year at the end of July.
Within weeks, the economy collapsed, and I, along with millions of others, lost a substantial amount in my 401(k) account. Living in Seattle at the time, I was stunned to follow news accounts of the failure of Washington Mutual Bank—the largest bank failure in U.S. history.
While people of all ages were affected, those at or near retirement age were in greatest jeopardy with little or no time to rebuilt their retirement nest egg.
The recent Congressional debate on the budget deficit debate, the subsequent downgrading of the U.S. credit rating by S&P, and the wild gyrations in financial markets that followed have caused additional financial uncertainty and losses in the value of investments. (Although it appears that things are settling down a bit now.)
Too few jobs for people who want to work, especially if they’re old
An obvious strategy for coping with financial uncertainly and decline in the value of your investments would be to work longer than you had planned. However, following the economic collapse in the fall of 2008, many people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s were laid off, and have since applied for job after job without success. Some were forced to begin collecting Social Security at age 60 which means receiving smaller monthly payments than if they’d been able to work until “full retirement age.”
It’s true that—with unemployment so high—there are fewer jobs to be had. But older workers are clearly having a much harder time finding work than are younger ones or recent graduates.
If you read print and online articles and forums these days, you’ll be struck that companies seem to have convinced themselves that job experience is a drawback. They want “people with fresh skills,” even if those skills are so fresh that those who possess them are veritable virgins when it comes to actual experience on the job.
Several years ago, I talked to a very-experienced man in Seattle who’d been laid off from his job and replaced by a younger inexperienced man. The company soon realized that youth and fresh skills don’t necessarily trump relevant experience, so it hired the first man back as a consultant to teach the younger one how to do the job.
Exhorbitant health-care costs
Millions and millions of old people will need increasingly expensive health care. The costs of providing health-care for those with Alzheimer’s Disease alone is terrifying. A recent issue of the “Johns Hopkins Memory Disorders Bulletin” discussed the current state of research funding for Alzheimer’s with Dr. Marilyn Albert, director of the Johns Hopkins Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Here’s part of that discussion:
Q: Based on research dollars and efforts being made today to find answers to the Alzheimer’s disease puzzle, what do you think is going to happen in 20 years if we continue the way we are going?
Dr. Albert: There are currently 5.3 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Over the next 20 years, without any intervention to slow Alzheimer’s disease progress and with the aging of the American population, this figure is expected to increase by 50 percent. By 2050, it’s thought that more than 16 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s, and this could easily bankrupt Medicaid and Medicare.
Unrecognized and costly caregiver contributions
Dr. Albert added that,
Family and friends of Alzheimer’s disease patients provide more than 80 percent of caregiving. Unfortunately, in 20 years we will also have fewer people to lend a hand for caregiving duties, since the birth rate in this country has been going down. In 20 years, we are going to have a catastrophe on our hands. This is another reason why we urgently need better treatment to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Caregiving to family members with Alzheimer’s Disease comes at an immense cost financially and emotionally. The work is so exhausting, draining, and isolating that the caretakers themselves are at risk of dying before the person for whom they are caring.
Add in caregivers for sons and daughters severely wounded in war or for grandchildren whose parents are dysfunctional, incarcerated, or otherwise unable to care for their own children, and you have an astronomical unpaid contribution by responsible, caring old people.
What can you do about it?
You can follow the news, go to meetings, write letters, donate to supportive causes, and engage in respectful discourse on issues affecting you, your children, and your grandchildren.
You can support win-win solutions and oppose punitive measures, such as efforts to punish innocent young immigrants brought to this country as toddlers.
And we can communicate and support one another. We can take advantage of the power of our numbers. We can vote.
What do you think? Are there other things we should do or need to do in this difficult, polarizing environment? What are the most helpful things we can do for one another, our children, and their children? I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, and comments. As always, respectful rebuttal is welcome. This is not a time for silence.
photo by 38322657@N08