We're confident about our health, yet most of us will eventually face chronic illness. We want to work as long as possible, but we realize the economy may not support that goal.
The fundamental dilemmas of aging in the United States come into sharp relief in the results of the second annual Get Old survey, sponsored by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in collaboration with the intergenerational advocacy group Generations United.
The study, based on telephone interviews with 1,000 adults, laid bare what Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall, Pfizer's chief medical officer, calls "some interesting contradictions."
For example, 90 percent of those surveyed expect to live a long life, and 88 percent said they are at ease or even optimistic about the present state of their health. But the nonprofit research firm Rand Corp. projects that nearly half the U.S. population — 48.8 percent — will be living with a chronic illness by 2025.
"This disconnect is one of the things that has baffled us from a health-care perspective for many years," Lewis-Hall says. "What are we going to do about that question?"
Work and Retirement Concerns
Reflecting on their career prospects, 78 percent of respondents agreed that people who work past retirement age are likely to stay healthy and happy longer than those who don't. At the same time, 47 percent said their communities don't offer adequate job opportunities to older workers, and 61 percent indicated that their greatest employment concern is the difficulty of finding a new job if they lose their current one.
"We think of our lives as very linear — you're young, you go to school, you learn some stuff, you work, you stop working and then you die," Lewis-Hall says. "As we've realized that our lives are going to be much longer than we anticipated, it may now behoove us to become more cyclical and intend at the beginning to invent and reinvent ourselves. Hopefully people will begin to rethink their lives before they must and we will have adequate systems in place to support that."
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Additional concerns became evident when respondents were asked about hopes for their retirement years. Across all age groups, less than 40 percent said their community was "very prepared" to support an aging population. And less than 20 percent consider the area in which they live to be very prepared to meet the home-care, transportation or housing needs of increasing numbers of older residents.
"People are looking to their left and to their right, taking care of children and parents and asking that we get ready," Lewis-Hall says. "Many have themselves looked for home care, as I have done, and it's incredibly challenging in a lot of communities. If I'm having trouble finding care for someone, what has to be done to get the community ready for when I need care?"
Other responses revealed potential cracks in our current way of life in the years ahead. Across generations, more than two-thirds of respondents said technology and social media have made personal connections more superficial and people feel more isolated. Even offline communication is seen as a challenge: 39 percent of respondents admitted they would feel uncomfortable asking their parents to stop driving if and when it became clear they could no longer do so safely.
The Get Old conversation continues at GetOld.com, where people of all ages have posted thoughts on how they intend to age. Professor S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois-Chicago, an expert on U.S. demographics and public health, was among those invited to kick off the conversation. "We exercise control over our lives every day," he wrote. "We smoke cigarettes, we become obese, we drink excessively, we expose ourselves to the sun. So the first lesson is to allow your body to live up to its genetic potential."
New Visions of Positive Aging
Despite the health and financial challenges many of us face, Lewis-Hall says, the largely positive posts on the Get Old site are evidence that "the important work of decreasing the stigma around aging is taking hold. People are standing tall, claiming their age, talking about aging in a positive way and providing their own inspirational stories."
Here are a few of those posts. Take a look, then add your own thoughts about how you'll grow old in our comments area below.
- "At 62, I lost my first husband. So I learned to ride a road bike and rode 2,200 miles in five months. Then I met an amazing man on Match.com and married him 15 months later. Life is good and I will continue to enjoy it as long as I have it." — Kathy K., 69
- "I want to live the next 50 years or so being active and vibrant and dare I say even sexy? Along with my hubby, we'll travel, enjoy our grandkids, play and have fun till the day we depart. And we'll do it all unmedicated!" — Leann, 51
- "I would like to be a contributing factor in social services, helping out the lost and downtrodden population, ones that may have given up, or that society hasn't the motivation to take a chance on. I'd hope to meet a woman along the way who agrees." — Sherrell C., 58
- "I will be in my third year of college in the fall. I take online courses in the summer so I can vacation. I wake up at 5:30 every morning to do school, housework and then work. I love my life." — C.W., 59
- "I will make the most of every day by living life with passion, energy and appreciation. I will spend my time living, not dying. Turning 50 on Aug. 31 and will celebrate by doing a 100-mile bike ride event on Sept. 1 — that's living!" — Tom H., 49
- "Starting over but have the wisdom this time. Doing things I would have never done at 30 and embracing the challenges. This time around is a piece of cake." —Rainey, 54