Take the current paradigm for an average life span: Start working in the mid to late teens, go to college, slave through your adulthood, retire in your mid-sixties and spend the rest of your days in a rocking chair with a lemonade in hand, playing chess in the park, crocheting, or on the golf range. Of course, there’s also a much bleaker picture associated with the conventional concept of old age. Smelly nursing homes, negligent caregivers, dull retirement communities… you get the picture. By this stage in life, most people expect that it won’t (it just can’t) last for very long.
But demographers predict that by 2030, average life expectancy will have climbed past 80 and citizens over 65 will make up more than 20 percent of the country’s population. The world’s population is aging at unprecedented rates; more are exceeding 80 years than ever before and the baby boomer bulge is swelling the ranks of those in their 60s and beyond. Along with the transformations that are already occurring in the makeup of the U.S. workforce, the health care system, and even the layout of cities, the needs and desires of the elderly will become a more important and prominent aspect of our culture. The years after age 65 will account for an increasingly large portion of our lives, whether we be mere witnesses of it at present in our youth or caregivers for our parents or living our elderly years now.
So it might be a failure of imagination to continue with the accepted perception that even as old age lasts longer and becomes more prevalent in society, the concept of elderly institutionalization and other expectations of life as an elderly person will remain intact. The very definition of “Old Age” is evolving into something that scientists and Life Extensionists like you and me can be a little more comfortable with. Of course, there is still so much that needs doing and supporting Methuselah Foundation is an excellent way to fortify the concentrated efforts into making Old Age a healthier, less limiting and much more fulfilling time in one’s life.
“We’re looking at people living 30 to 40 years longer than they did 100 years ago,” said Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab. “More of your adult life will be lived after the age of 50 than before age 50.
The question is, what’re you going to do with it?“
The American concept of old age as we know it today owes much of its structure to a government decision made in 1935 when the Social Security Act set a mandatory retirement age of 65. The idea was definitely a product of its time, when medical breakthroughs sent infant mortality rates plummeting and life expectancy soaring. Older workers were competing with a lot more young ones for work. “There was actually a theory, called ‘disengagement theory,’ that said it was mutually beneficial for older adults to remove themselves from active, productive roles in society,” said David Burdick, director of the Stockton Center on Successful Aging in New Jersey. The retirement system was essentially designed to ease obsolete old people out of the workforce to make room for the American youth and even with retirement eventually ceasing to be mandatory in the US, the Social Security Act left in its wake a potent legacy in marking 65 as the fault line in the public imagination between citizens whom our society values and those considered no longer productive.
Fortunately that fault line has begun to fade in recent years as more 65 year olds elect to stay in the workforce because of insufficient retirement or because they aren’t keen on quitting just yet . “You look at surveys of baby boomers, something like 80 percent of them say they want to continue working after the age of retirement,” said Richard Adler, an affiliate of the Palo Alto nonprofit The Institute for the Future.
By the time the baby boomers have had at it, old age will probably be a completely different beast than when they found it. That’s where a major cultural shift comes in. The baseline assumptions of future old people won’t be of those who grew up in the 40s or even the 60s. They’ll be shaped by people who came of age texting their friends, consulting their smart phones for where to eat dinner, talking to family on the other side of the world on webcam, and expecting to be generating and receiving information in a way completely foreign to those who reached adulthood way before the internet craze.
“Younger generations are much more proficient in navigating this gray line between the physical world and the virtual world, and they’ll continue that as they age,” said George Demiris, an associate professor of biobehavioral nursing and health systems at the University of Washington. In this way, isolation and boredom – two of the most intimidating challenges the elderly face – is likely to be minimized or even disappear altogether for many. Even a housebound person is more than able to stay engaged in the world, promising a positive impact, a restoration of sorts of the social status of elderly people. They will still be able to exert influence in the market and the number of things they won’t be able to perform can be sharply reduced. A sense of independence and dignity can be encouraged, maintained and prolonged. The burden of caring for elderly parents might be considerably lighter. Sounds like everyone wins, doesn’t it?
The future of old age can and should be a bright one. Imagine individuals in our society that have both decades of experience and the robust health and stamina to exert a positive force on the social and economic aspects of our society! It would be one of the greatest gifts we could ever give to our parents, our selves, our children, and the generations to come. The Methuselah Foundation is eager to do all we can in this endeavor. We are deeply grateful for your loyal support in extending this gift that just keeps on giving.
Neyfakh, Leon. “The Future of Old.” The Boston Globe. Globe Newspaper Company, 08 May 2011. Web. 11 May 2011. http://usafamilymedicine.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/cartoon20051230.gif.