Surprising Facts About Aging in America

senior couple holding hands and walking in park

“Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.” -Maurice Chevalier

Most of us have heard, or made, jokes to this effect: that aging is awful, but at least it’s better than being dead. And The Who (most of whom didn’t get their wish) famously sang, “Hope I die before I get old.” The general consensus in American culture is that youth is to be preserved—and aging to be avoided—as long as possible. Telling someone they “look good for their age” is supposed to be a compliment, but it is based on the assumption that looking old isn’t a good thing. No wonder so many of us dread aging, given what we've been told about it all our lives. But there are some surprising facts about aging in America that should please anyone headed in that direction.

Author Ashton Applewhite had many of the same misconceptions about aging that lots of us do, until she delved into research for her recent book, "This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism."

Physical Aging and Frailty

What do you see in your mind when you picture an older person? Someone stooped over, walking gingerly with a cane? Someone lying in a nursing home bed? Certainly some older people fit this description, but overall, seniors in America are more healthy and fit than most people imagine.

What percentage of people over 65 are in nursing homes in this country? Ten percent? Twenty? It would probably surprise you to learn, as Applewhite did, that the figure is only 2.5%. What's more, even that low number is declining. Even for people over 85, considered "the oldest old," the number in nursing homes is only 9%.

Even if people aren't in nursing homes, there is a common stereotype of older people being homebound and helpless. Applewhite found that this, too, is often not the case. Even among those "oldest old" who are north of 85, a full 50% can go about their daily lives without the need of any assistance; many others need only limited help.

And what about that most dreaded of afflictions that strikes the elderly: Alzheimer's dementia? Certainly it affects millions and has a great impact on families, But what is the likelihood that any given individual will develop it? Thirty percent? Fifty? Applewhite found otherwise, and the news is likely to be a relief: While 10% of those over 65 develop Alzheimer's, that means that 90% of people will not. Perhaps even better, rates of Alzheimer's are dropping at the same time that the baby boomers are beginning to swell the ranks of seniors.

Aging in America and Emotional Health

One of the things many of us dread about aging is loneliness. We may picture ourselves homebound and frail (see above), widowed, perhaps with children who live across the country and rarely visit. It is true that 25% of seniors over 70 surveyed report that they are lonely. That may seem like a lot. But in the age group 45-49, that figure is 43%. The loneliest age group in this survey, administered by Cigna in 2018? Ages 18-22.

Essentially, this curve means that people tend to be happiest at the beginning and end of their lives, with less satisfaction toward the middle—you know, what's known as the "prime of life."

Applewhite references the "U-shaped happiness curve," which many studies have substantiated. Essentially, this curve means that people tend to be happiest at the beginning and end of their lives, with less satisfaction toward the middle—you know, what's known as the "prime of life." Look back on your childhood bliss: time to do what you want, spend time with friends, learn about and try new things just because they interest you. That's what your golden years can hold, only now you can drive and you have a credit card. Good times lie ahead!

Aging in America and Your Finances

Speaking of credit cards and finances, another common worry about aging is financial health. Many people worry that they are going to be a financial burden to their families. While it is certainly wise to think ahead and plan for your financial needs in your later years, you may be surprised to learn that older people are far from a drain on the economy.

As Applewhite learned in her research, older Americans make up only 35% of the U.S. population, people over the age of 50 contribute 43% of the total gross domestic product: $7.4 trillion dollars. So while it is certainly true that some individuals are not doing well financially, as a group, older Americans are more than pulling their weight as far as the economy is concerned.

Applewhite notes that part of the reason we harbor so many negative misconceptions about older people is ageism. But if you want to experience the vibrant old age that Applewhite discovered is more common than most people believe, planning will help you get there. We invite you to contact our law office to schedule a consultation with an attorney who is experienced in elder law and financial matters.

Categories: Elder Law

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