Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Aging World

(Note: This is my third post under the auspices of the nurse blogger scholarship which I recently received from Value Care, Value Nurses.)

The predictions are in. The number of Americans over age 65 will double by the year 2050, and this demographic shift is occurring on almost every continent.

Personally, although I am not a member of the Baby Boom generation that accounts for the majority of this projected statistical growth, I will turn 65 in 2029, putting me squarely in the midst of the burgeoning data pool.

So what does this mean? What does such a huge demographic population shift portend? How are we to prepare for such a tilt of the generational scales?

First, it seems apparent that governmental bodies must prepare as massive numbers of older adults begin to retire and collect government benefits (to which they are justifiably entitled). Medicare and Social Security here in the U.S. must be protected from bankruptcy, and there seems to be little actually being done about it from this lay-person's perspective. How will these programs survive the onslaught without further government intervention?

And as these scores of hopeful retirees begin to navigate their "post-career" world, many of them are already discovering that making ends meet at a time of astronomical increases in the cost of living is not merely a challenge, it is a matter of basic survival.

How many seniors are now competing with teenagers for entry-level jobs at checkout counters and convenience stores? How many elderly citizens are having to make painful and difficult choices between food, prescriptions, and home heating oil? Which seniors are choosing to sell their beloved family homes for which they have worked so hard for so long, moving to low-income housing to reduce costs and make ends meet? These are hard times, and for many newly-retired seniors, the times may get even harder.

Back in the day, a nest egg was amassed over time with a combination of diligent saving and the promise of life-long company pensions (now mostly a relic of the past). After World War II, many former soldiers went to college for free, pursued vocational training, or bought homes under the GI Bill, securing economic keys to a bright future promised by a grateful post-war government.

Today, families face a different set of economic circumstances. The cost of college has risen exponentially, and many families go into considerable debt to educate their children (or for middle-aged parents to pursue new careers in the face of a changing workforce). Relatively speaking, housing costs have also risen astronomically, with middle-class families struggling to manage mortgage payments, a substantial number sadly ending up in foreclosure. Add to this the cost of healthcare (with rising insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses), the price of oil, and the concurrent rise in food prices, and a recipe for economic suffering is securely in place.

So, within this cultural milieu, the newly retired, the elderly and the very old balance on a financial and societal precipice. With working families less able to assist elderly family members economically, and with elders living longer due to advances in medicine and medical technology, how will we as a society care for our elders who cannot care for themselves? Will we warehouse those who cannot afford tony apartments in bourgeois assisted living facilities, spiriting them away to less-than-adequate nursing homes for the economically challenged? Will the working class elderly have to fend for themselves as the Social Security pie is divided beyond recognition, unable to keep pace with the rising cost of living?

As a society, we truly need to think deeply about how we will make adjustments to care for, house, feed, and provide for a growing geriatric population that is projected to continue to expand for the next forty years. It is apparent to this writer that controlling the rising costs of healthcare, food, and energy are three keys to the potential success of any attempted economic rescue of our---or any other---society. I am no economist or demographer, but I can see the writing on the wall, and elders who are unable to pay for medicine, healthcare, heat, and food are elders who are at great risk on many levels of their lives.

With families around the world struggling to make ends meet, and the economic barometer anything but reassuring, it isn't only the elderly who are in need of succor. Still, like children, the elderly are a vulnerable population requiring stewardship and thoughtful oversight by both the powers that be and the citizenry at large. And how we care for our elders and our children is a good indication of the overall humanity of our collective moral compass.
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