American Society’s Perception of Aging
The statistical data and actuarial records relating to aging population trends and profiles throughout the United States are not only credible but astonishing. The life expectancy of a person born in 1900 was 47 years, and there were only 3 million persons 65 or older in that year. For a person today, the life expectancy is 75 years, and there are over 36 million senior citizens. In 1900 pneumonia, tuberculosis and gastroenteritis were the major causes of death. Today, heart disease and cancer are the major causes. People are living much longer.
If a person is already 65 years old, his or her average remaining lifetime is 17 years. If you are a descendant of long-lived ancestors, your genes are coded for an even longer life. It helps to be a woman, too. On average, American women live 8 years longer than men. Today, life expectancy for men is 71 years while life expectancy for women is 79 years. There are approximately four women to every three men in the 65 and over category. By 2030 it is predicted that there will be 58 million persons aged 65 or over and will constitute 17 percent of the entire population.
In most industrialized countries, 65 has become the mandatory age for retirement. This was first started by the Prussian Dictator, Bismarck, in an attempt to institute social reforms for his subjects. Retirement was considered a reward from the state for the worker’s many years of toil. During this turbulent period in history a person’s life expectancy was substantially shorter than it is today. Few workers spent any time in retirement. This practice continues today because it is the belief that a strong, efficient industrialized society can provide goods and services for all its citizens while “freeing” its senior citizens to enjoy the better aspects of life.
A society is a collection of formally and informally groups organized for mutual survival. The family, as the primary unit in our society, is responsible for child rearing and the social and moral training of our young. The family transmits roles and status to its members and provides a series of rewards, reinforcements, and prohibitions that direct our lives. Our society places a premium on youth. Exalting youth, we devote many years to the care, nurturance, and education of our young. The elderly are neither cherished, like the young, nor productive, like the middle-aged, our society makes them feel like obsolete, unwanted burdens.
Older persons, themselves, consciously or subconsciously subscribe to these prejudices. The most obvious one stems from the Puritan work ethic, “An idle mind (and hands) is the Devil’s workshop.” It’s ironic that the strongest proponents of the work ethic are the senior citizens. This attitude compounds the problems arising from the idleness they face after forced or voluntary retirement. Senior citizens encounter other prejudices as well. If they seek work, most employers will turn them down because they are “too old.” Studies indicate that, except when a life is at stake, persons working with or caring for senior citizens do not like their jobs and would prefer working with younger people.
Normally adjusted senior citizens are able to face very grim realities as long as the circumstances of their lives allow them to remain outgoing and communicative. For many, retirement means the opportunity to do the things have never had time to do. A certain amount of loneliness and depression is par for the course in normal aging in dealing with the losses that are inevitable.
Since biblical times, much has been written about the cognitive stability of older person, and studies have shown that senior citizens are as competent as anybody in making use of long-term memory to arrive at decisions. The fact that it may take a little longer is offset by the greater number of memories they have stored up. Having a wealth of experience to draw on contributes a perspective that the younger person simply can’t apply. For practical purposes, therefore, seniors can do anything just as well as their younger counterparts, as long as they are given time.
One of the most common assumptions about senior citizens is their excessive dependence on others. The evidence for dependence can be determined by three indicators-reliance on others for living arrangements, health care and finances, simply doesn’t support this idea. According to a study, 75 percent of senior citizens own their own homes. Typically these homes are in urban areas. Most of them are fully paid for, and therefore, relatively cheap to own. Practical problems do arise-for example, lack of transportation and difficulties getting up and down stairs. Certain State Offices of Aging operate programs to help meet the practical needs arising from incapacities that frequently occur after age 75 years and older.
Senior citizens are basically healthier than we think. The aged do suffer more chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease but have fewer acute illnesses than younger people. When acute illnesses do occur, they tend to be more serious.
There is an interesting theory on the loss of reserve energy or “second wind.” Lack of it seems to be what people allude to when they say they’re feeling older. Actually it’s stress and daily wear and tear rather than age, that impairs the body’s homeostatic (self-balancing) processes. Nonetheless, we blame age for the slowness we sometimes feel. There are many ways to minimize the loss of reserve energy: regular exercise, good nutrition, meditation and avoidance of smoking. All improve circulation of the blood and contribute to general feelings of well-being.
In our country, loss of income means loss of social status and presages loss of independence. Therefore, loss of income is a very strong and realistic source of fear. The four sources of income for senior citizens are: social security, pensions, salaries and public welfare programs. More than 18 percent of senior men and nearly 8 percent women are still working. In the last 30 years, there has also been a large increase in the number and value of pensions available to retirees. Senior citizens though sometimes in straitened circumstances, are remarkably proud and independent. The idea of being financially dependent is an old myth that does not hold water.
In other cultures, senior citizens are venerated as sages of wisdom and treated with the utmost respect. Our country has to switch its perspective from worshiping youth to valuing its senior citizens and what they have to offer. When this attitude change occurs, then people will stop dreading about “getting old.”
About the Author: Diane Wachowski
I am a retired master’s prepared nurse with a vast scope of experiences in the areas of mental and geriatric nursing. I have held clinical specialist positions in as well as administrative positions in which I developed programs for acute and long term clients on social skills, reality orientation, etc.
My Blog, Challenge of Aging, presents a thumbnail sketch of topics, such as normal aging, memory involvement in aging, bodily changes, common physical complications and so forth and then present suggestions on how to cope more effectively with these changes.
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