How Society Misunderstands the Elderly

The complexion of society is changing as 75 million baby boomers begin moving into retirement. Each day 10,000 people reach age 65, which has served as a signal that it is time to retire ever since the Retirement Age Act was passed back in the early 1930s. It is projected that the current 40 million senior citizens will balloon to 89 million by 2050.

How does the world view the swelling ranks of the elderly? In a recent Oregon State study, it was not all good news. “Our society devalues old age in many ways, and this is particularly true in the United States, where individualism, self-reliance, and independence are highly valued,” says Oregon State University researcher Michelle Barnhart in a statement. “Almost every stereotype we associate with being elderly is something negative, from being ‘crotchety’ and unwilling to change to being forgetful.”

Some terms typically used to describe older folks can be far from flattering, including wrinkled, grumpy, crotchety, absent minded, forgetful, fragile, feeble, stuck in the past, past their prime, or a burden on society, just to name a few. This is not exactly how you might wish to be perceived by the world. And yet if you ask those living the role of older people you may discover these negative terms do not accurately represent reality.

As recently as 2001, 62 percent of people approaching retirement age viewed retirement as a winding down or continuation of life as it is, according to a Harris Interactive survey commissioned by SunAmerica Financial Group. But by 2011, a majority (54 percent) viewed retirement as a whole new chapter in life filled with opportunities and new challenges.

The overall mood of baby boomers is pretty positive, with 93 percent feeling satisfied with their personal relationships and spiritual life and 82 percent believing they can get the things in life that are important to them, according to an online survey of 1,204 people ages 45 to 65 with a minimum household income of $75,000 commissioned by resort real estate advisory firm Civano Living. This does not sound like a beaten bunch, but more like a positively directed and inspired group of aging boomers.

If you ask seniors how they feel, don’t be surprised to hear they often feel younger than their years or that the best years are yet to come. The negative stereotypes commonly espoused to this graying group do not necessary apply. Consider that TV correspondent Mike Wallace and commentator Andy Rooney continued to work on 60 Minutes into their late eighties, Kurt Vonnegut published A Man Without a Country at age 82, and Dr. Michael DeBakey, inventor of the artificial heart, performed his final surgery at age 90 and went on to concentrate on laboratory work until his death at 98.

It may be time for the world to reevaluate how it perceives the elderly. Aging baby boomers who enjoy medical advances and improvements to daily life will be younger at heart and generally more physically able than earlier generations. Work that used to be heavily manual took its toll physically on the workers of yesterday. However, baby boomers who work in roles utilizing brain power rather than brawn may be less worn out upon reaching retirement age and do not necessarily require down time. They might prefer a more active existence.

The reality is that if we are fortunate enough to get old we will experience increasing dependence on others for basic requirements, including for driving, shopping, cleaning the house, keeping up on medications, and safely existing in our own homes. But don’t forget that underneath wrinkled skin often shines a spirit and strength of will that should inspire, not cause ridicule. For many baby boomers, retirement is only the beginning.

Tradition dictates that at some point in our lives we will retire. For some, retirement will follow an orderly progression, and at age 65 with a sufficient retirement nest egg saved they will take the plunge. Others will be forced to deal with the harsh reality of difficult times and may find themselves without a job before they are ready to retire. And some people will transition from one career into another, preferring to stay active rather than withdraw from the working world. Whichever path you end up on, moving into retired life can be challenging.

Those who are forced to retire before they are ready to face uncertainty on many fronts:

Feelings of isolation. It is not uncommon to feel alone in retirement, even though many retirees share the same experience each day. Retirement often cuts you off from your social connections at work, and it can be overwhelming to suddenly feel alone and adrift in the world. It’s a good idea to cultivate new relationships outside the workplace in the years leading up to retirement.

Financial worries. Without sufficient savings, how will I pay the bills? When you don’t have financial security, retirement can feel like a struggle just to survive day to day. People in this situation often need to find ways to generate new income.

Anger. It can be frustrating to be pushed out of a job you worked hard at for many years. And the resentment will build if you have difficulty finding a new position. Just because you are getting older does not mean you are no longer qualified to do your job

Self-doubt. After repeated rejections, some older job seekers may start to doubt their skills. Years of experience can seem to mean little when compared to younger and cheaper employees. Try not to take rejections personally.

Lack of direction. In the midst of our career we knew pretty much what to do each day. There was a plan. Now you have to fill your own calendar with activities.

Resignation. There are so many younger prospective employees to compete with. And in many cases the boss will be half your age. Sometimes job seekers eventually give up on finding new work and settle into retirement.

Even those fortunate enough to voluntarily transition into retired life are not guaranteed a smooth ride:

Empty nest. Helping our children to become independent adults is the goal of all parents. However, when the person we have loved and supported all these years heads out the door to live their life they can leave behind a big void. At a time in our life already filled with change and uncertainty, that departing young adult may only add to the struggle.

Planning for meaningful activity. Once retired, we leave the working world behind, and the days become ours to do with as we want. But without meaningful activities to pursue we lack the richness and feeling of accomplishment that makes living worthwhile. Keeping busy for the sake of killing time is a recipe for disaster. And just accepting life instead of striving to get the most out of each moment is a waste. We need to fill our retirement years with something worth our effort. Try to experiment with what you might like to do in retirement ahead of time so that you will be prepared for a fulfilling second act.

What do I really want to do with the rest of my life? If you retire at age 65, you could have 20 or 30 more years ahead of you. And you get to choose how to fill that time. You need to figure out what you are most passionate about, what inspires you, and what gets you excited about being alive. Unless you discover what will give meaning to your retirement years, you risk letting valuable days and positive opportunities pass you by.

From my US News & World blog. Dave Bernard is the author of Are You Just Existing and Calling it a Life?, which offers guidelines to discover your personal passion and live a life of purpose. Not yet retired, Dave has begun his due diligence to plan for a fulfilling retirement. With a focus on the non-financial aspects of retiring, he shares his discoveries and insights on his blog Retirement–Only the Beginning.

This entry was posted in Aging, Healthy Living, Senior Lifestyle and tagged , , , by LoveBeingRetired. Bookmark the permalink.

About LoveBeingRetired

Dave Bernard is a California born and raised author and blogger with an extensive 30 year career in Silicon Valley. He has written more than 300 blogs for US News & World On Retirement and his personal blog Retirement – Only the Beginning. He has authored three books: "Are you just existing and calling it a life?"; "I want to retire! Essential Considerations for the Retiree to Be"; and " Navigating the Retirement Jungle". Dave was also a contributing writer for the books 65 Things to do when you Retire (“Positive Aging – Old is the New Young”) as well as 65 Things to do when you Retire – TRAVEL (“Travel to Discover your Family Heritage”). He lives in sunny California with his wife, his Boston Terrier "Frank" and a passion for the San Jose Sharks.

One thought on “How Society Misunderstands the Elderly

  1. Love that survey of happy boomers you quoted! I’d be happy too if we made over $75,000. Please include the statistic of how many boomers make that much now. Then survey those 70% who have at least one chronic condition, are disabled or have little or no income…

Comments are closed.