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How the Young and Old Worry About Aging

A new survey finds more similarities than differences


Young and old Americans, it turns out, have very similar worries about aging, according to a fascinating new survey unveiled at the American Society on Aging conference I’m attending in Chicago.

The West Health Institute/NORC Survey on Aging in America polled 3,026 adults age 30 and older to see how people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70+ perceive aging. The researchers, who presented their results in a panel, particularly wanted to ask thirtysomethings and fortysomethings because “they’re involved in the aging experience through family members and as caregivers and because they’ll be the seniors of the future,” said Dr. Zia Agha, chief medical officer and executive vice president of clinical research at the West Health Institute (a nonprofit dedicated to helping older Americans age in place).

Worries About Aging Loom Large

The upshot of the survey: “Worries about aging loom large for Americans over 30 for the country and for themselves,” said Agha. “About 70 percent think the country is ‘a little or not at all prepared’ to address the needs of the fast-growing senior population.”

And, the survey found, 59 percent believe the efforts under way to address the health care and social support needs of older Americans are “not going in the right direction.” Agha’s take: “It’s very clear that today’s health care is not addressing all the needs” of older Americans. “We need more patient-centered and senior-centered models of care,” he added.

About 70 percent think the country is ‘a little or not at all prepared’ to address the needs of the fast-growing senior population.

— Dr. Zia Agha, chief medical officer, West Health Institute

Common Fears Across the Generations

Perhaps the most striking survey finding is how much the generations agree on what they worry may happen to them as they age. Fear of losing independence as they grow older is a key concern across the ages — whether that could mean losing memory, being in poor health or not having financial security. Each of these is a worry of roughly 71 percent of respondents.

For those in their 30s, 40s and 50s, the top aging worry (by a hair) is financial security. Losing memory is the biggest aging concern, just barely, among those in their 60s and 70s. “Patients have been educated on how to prevent diabetes. They don’t know what to do to protect themselves from dementia,” said Agha. “There isn’t much we can tell them.”

Personally Optimistic About Aging

Most Americans surveyed, however, are personally optimistic about aging.

More than half said they are “mostly or somewhat” optimistic and the percentage actually increases with age. While 46 percent of those in their 30s said they’re optimistic about aging, a striking 66 percent of those 70 and older are. The higher percentage, Agha said, “is a reflection of the resilience of seniors as they age.”

What’s Lacking Locally

The real problem with aging in America, survey respondents say, is how poorly their area meets the needs of its older residents.

Only 43 percent believe their area is doing a “good job” for health care, nutrition and transportation; fewer than 30 percent feel that way about affordable housing and mental health care.

“Society and the nation are not well prepared to deal with the phenomenon we are all facing,” said Carol Raphael, a senior adviser to Manatt Health Solutions, at the American Society on Aging panel. “We’ve moved from saving lives to prolonging lives and we now need to move to optimizing lives. Another thing we need to think about is how to have age-friendly communities that really allow people to be independent.”

What ‘Old Age’ Means

And what exactly is “old age?” Again, the survey found, it’s mostly about losing independence: 79 percent said people have reached old age when they can no longer live on their own; 64 percent said it’s when they can no longer drive. As for chronological age, 87 percent said a person has reached old age at 85 and 74 percent said it’s age 75.

How to Improve the Aging Experience

As the session ended, moderator Roger Kissin, president of Communication Partners & Associates, asked a key question of the panelists: What are the models of care for tomorrow to ensure that we are helping individuals with the aging experience?

Raphael looked to “more intergenerational models” such as AARP’s Experience Corps, where adults over 50 tutor elementary school children. “The results seem to be very powerful” for the children and for the tutors, she said. Research has found, Raphael noted, that the instructors’ health status “improved dramatically” and the tutors “made social connections with others at the school.”

Interestingly, physician Agha said that aging better in the future is about more than medical solutions. “I think it’s very clear we can’t prescribe our way out of the problem,” he said. Agha believes “we need to work towards a multidisciplinary, holistic system surrounding seniors with the services they need from communities that are not provided by the health care system.”

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