By 2030, one-fifth of all Americans will be older than 65, but few support structures are in place to help care for them. Salon senior writer Mary Elizabeth Williams discusses these questions with M.T. Connolly, author of The Measure of Our Age: Navigating Care, Safety, Money, and Meaning Later in Life. In this interview, published also on Medium, they discuss how ill-equipped the United States is to handle such a large population in need, the negative consequences of ageism, what American society should do and how older people can prepare to enjoy the rest of their lives.
- The United States is ill-equipped to face the challenges of caring for its aging population.
- Society ignores the idea of getting old and, therefore, also ignores the care and support elderly people need.
- People who want to live longer and be happier must build a supportive infrastructure.
The United States is ill-equipped to face the challenges of caring for its aging population.
Since about 1920, the life expectancy of the average American has increased by 30 years. People 85 and older are among the fastest-growing demographic groups in the United States. Research reveals that as many as 75% of them may require financial and medical assistance, and some are already dealing with a disability. However, the nation has little infrastructure to accommodate this massive surge in the number of older people who may need care.
Author M.T. Connolly, who explores these issues in her book, The Measure of Our Age: Navigating Care, Safety, Money, and Meaning Later in Life, explains that as baby boomers reach retirement age, the United States must find a solution for assisting in their care.
“By 2030, one in five Americans is going to be 65 or older. That’s an astonishing shift.” (M.T. Connolly)
One problem is that Medicare and most private health insurance policies do not cover long-term care. And, even people who can afford to go to a nursing home or adult living facility often do not want to enter an institution. As a consequence, younger adults frequently and unexpectedly become caregivers for elderly family members. Unprepared, they find that US society has only minimal support structures to help them. Left alone with this tremendous responsibility, they often feel isolated.
Society ignores the idea of getting old and, therefore, also ignores the care and support elderly people need.
American culture is ageist. Many people look down on the very notion of being old. However, research shows that people who are ageist have shorter lives than those who view aging in a positive light. Worrying about and resisting getting older is stressful and taxing on the body. Instead, Connolly advises, start having more conversations about old age, bring these issues before your civic and political leaders, and look for opportunities to live a good life during your senior years.
The US public health care system for the elderly doesn’t function well, and the country has not done enough to fix it. Many aging parents still support their adult kids financially, at least, in part. This younger generation will soon have to become their elderly parents’ caretakers, yet they are not equipped to handle the responsibility or the cost.
“Suddenly it shifts so that the younger person falls into the position of being a caregiver. That can work for a little while. But as the care needs mount, it’s often a recipe for disaster.” (M.T. Connolly)
Specialized organizations, such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), offer some help. Yet the United States has nothing on the grand scale it will need, such as a “Caregivers Anonymous” organization that could assist the nation’s more than 41 million caregivers. Americans must fight ageism, and put support structures for the nation’s elders in place at all levels, from the national culture to each community and home. People must understand and prepare for the issues that may confront them as caregivers as well as the concerns they will face as they age.
People who want to live longer and be happier need to build a supportive infrastructure.
America must make efforts to fix its broken elder-care system, so older people can experience a time of learning and caring, not a time of being anxious and alone. Society should become solution-oriented and proactive in its approach to aging. For example, the United States needs to build and fund residential facilities that people are willing to use. Families need to have hard conversations about what they will do – and how they will afford it – if their grandparents or parents need help someday.This is particularly important for women and families of color since they tend to take on more responsibility, even if it is burdensome.
“We shouldn’t give up on people.” (M.T. Connolly)
Despite all these challenges, growing old can open up an exciting, valuable time of life, a time to decide what is really important and to live with a focus on those positive priorities. This could include spending time with loved ones, exploring your interests, and developing community connections and personal pursuits to counter the harmful effects of isolation.
About the Authors
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Nation and elsewhere.