Have you ever wondered what our society would be like if 1/3 of the population were over the age of 65 – many of whom will live to be 85 or older?
That will be our social reality in just one generation. And that is what the public television documentary film Coming of Age in Aging America is all about. I’m the fortunate 68-year-old producer and director of the film – one that has for some a startling message: an aging society is not just about old people; it’s about everyone, now and in the future.
That may seem boringly obvious for some while for many it spells economic disaster and social conflict. It needn’t.
Most of us haven’t actually taken the time to concretely envision what that society would be like. But let’s take one tiny example: older people take longer to cross a four lane in a city – about the time it takes for a mother to push a stroller across the street. It can be hazardous for both. Now let’s say the city decided to accommodate the needs of 1/3 of its population – with longer lights to enable safer crossing.
Now — in a city like Manhattan, think of the ramifications. This of the cartoon where block after block, cross street after cross street, the lights changing in new patterns, slower traffic, horns blaring, road rage. Gridlock.
This is precisely what we as a society face as our society becomes an aging society. Gridlock. But gridlock usually ends when a knot is untangled. It takes time, but it usually happens. Untangling the knotty ‘problems’ of an aging society means that we re-imagine, re-engineer, restructure most of what is around us: our existing environment and transportation, our economic policies, our medical system (that needs fixing whether we were an aging society or not), our educational system, work environments and even our sense of what the timeline of our lives might be.
For most of us older Americans, our timeline was pretty clear: childhood and education, 0 – to, say, 35; 35 – 65, work, saving, raising a family, creating community, owning a home if we’re lucky, taking care of aging parents. After 65 – leisure. Non-work. Freedom. New pursuits, if we’re lucky, travel. Then a usually short period of decline (scholars calls this a ‘compression of morbidity’. Lucky us!) And then…death.
But does this make sense now?
Laura Carstensen, Director of the Longevity Institute at Stanford University, asks a provocative question – if we now know that we have an extra two decades of life to live than our forebears, why do we put all the leisure, freedom, rest, time with family — at the end? Joe Coughlin at the MIT Center on Aging may surprise us when he charts his research on well-being. The period of LOWEST well-being in our current life-course is between the ages of 37 and 57, when Americans are squeezed by work, family and financial pressures.
Coming of Age in Aging America suggests that as we change the structures to not adapt to but support a productive aging society, we change our conception of the standard life course. Middle age, for instance, could be punctuated by time off to re-educate, rest, take care of family. Education could also be redesigned so that folks in the middle of life wouldn’t stick out like sore thumbs in college classrooms. Work could continue well into our 70s – but not at the same pace or with the same demands as our younger years. And what if innovations in the Social Security System were geared not only to solvency (the Congressional Budget Office offer no fewer than 30 policy changes that would guarantee solvency) but creating incentives to working longer – and financial innovations to support that?
We could open our minds to the transformation of our suburbs – built for young families but now where half of older Americans still live. How do we rezone areas so that a corner store might be available in walking distance – dispensing with the need for a car. One of our advisors, an urban planner, called this the ‘toilet paper rule’: how far does one need to go to buy a bare necessity (pun intended) like toilet paper? How can suburbs provide social connectedness…how about something as simple as…..sidewalks in residential areas?
Yes, it will take a generation to make these changes. And yes it can be done. In fact, it must.
The alternative? Consider again one small example from 1995: “The 1995 Chicago heat wave was a heat wave which led to 739 heat-related deaths in Chicago over a period of five days. Most of the victims of the heat wave were elderly poor residents of the city, who could not afford air conditioning and did not open windows or sleep outside for fear of crime.”
Here’s the catch — one of every four older Americans live at or under the poverty line. Potential heat wave deaths. And let’s not forget: social and economic inequality in this country is far greater than any other equivalent developed country. The 99% of today’s old – and their offspring — will live longer than any other generation in human history.
If we do nothing the legacy for our children will be an increasingly poor, sick, isolated population of older people, whose lives will be expensive to sustain and whose deaths may become blip on the population demographic screen.
And the legacy will be the specter that they – and their children — will likely join their ranks.
In each of your communities there is likely a Commission on Aging. Or an initiative to fundamentally change both ageism – a pernicious bias – and elements in your community. Get involved. Use the skills you’ve acquired over a lifetime to CHANGE. Encourage your children to be part of the conversation and encourage them to be patient.
After all, what we are facing is a demographic transformation never experienced in human history. The Queen Mary can’t turn around in a small harbor.