Valerie Schultz

Wednesday, Feb 24 2010 01:42 PM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: Aging gracefully in an aging society

By Valerie Schultz

One of the pitfalls of being a member of the baby boom generation -- those of us born between 1946 and 1964 -- is that rarely do I feel like I do anything original. All of the stages of my life have been exhaustively studied and copiously documented, because we boomers seem to think that we are the first people ever to be born, endure adolescence, go to college, get married, have children, juggle priorities, have midlife crises, get religion, retire, go through menopause/cancer/knee replacements/ prostate problems, and face death. As we mark life's milestones en masse, we assume we remain the center of everyone's attention.

The reality is that we boomers are aging, and because of our numbers, so is America. There are 76 million of us, and we are living longer. It is during this decade that the bulk of the baby boom generation reaches retirement age. As an aging society, we are preoccupied with looking younger, feeling younger, and acting younger. The popular expression "50 is the new 30" reflects our desire to deny our slide into maturity and even to cheat death. We don't dig all that jazz about aging gracefully. Still, we are beginning to need products that reveal our failings and shortcomings: if a being from another planet were to measure us by our preponderance of TV commercials for Viagra and electric scooters, we would be judged a nation of the limp and limping.

A recent study conducted by the MacArthur Foundation analyzes the impact of this social phenomenon, not specifically on government Social Security and Medicare programs, but on American society itself. The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society, whose findings and forecasts were published at the end of 2009, focuses on three broad themes.

The first theme is the overall interaction of generations, and its resulting positive and negative impacts. For example, will the number of aging Americans provide more opportunity for the positive transfer of wisdom, tradition and support from the older to the younger generation, or will it cause an ever-broadening generation gap that plays out as a series of intergenerational political battles?

The second addresses the need for meaningful and productive roles in society for the elderly. If we are going to live longer, healthier lives, we need to find ways to contribute to civic and social well-being. How will large numbers of retirees affect the religious, political, workplace, educational and family institutions on which our society is built? Will we enhance our community or burden it unduly?

The third ponders the impact of an aging society on one that is at the same time becoming more racially, ethnically and socio-economically diverse. Different groups have disparate experiences of aging. How do we bridge the divides within a changing America, so that our collective health and happiness as an aging society is positive?

Food for thought, these are questions for wiser (younger?) brains than mine to answer. Those of us who are growing older would do well to concentrate on doing the best we can with what we have, in body, mind and soul, even as we turn over the helm of the future to the next generation. To help us with our individual issues, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has teamed with the American Society on Aging (ASA) to increase awareness of the health issues that older Americans face. In the area of mental health, for example, these organizations work to spread the word that cognitive decline does not have to be an inevitable fact of aging. Cognitive vitality -- memory, thinking skills and overall mental function -- is directly improved by staying physically healthy and socially active. In other words, we need to pay attention to lowering our weight and blood pressure, to exercising, stopping smoking and improving our diet, as well as to remaining productive members of society, in order to increase our chances of a healthy and serene old age.

My grandmother, at 97, was the last to survive among her siblings and in-laws. When she died, her generation disappeared from the family. Just after her funeral, I remember my mother turning to my father in dismay. "We're the old people now," she said, as though disbelieving that this could ever have come to pass. But she was right: it was like those old signs at the airport, when one departing flight caused all the other flights below it on the schedule to flip up one line closer to the top. Except this generational shift was like moving one line closer to death.

Which happens to all generations, of course. The difference that the baby boom generation makes to this particular shift is that there are so many of us, and we have had fewer children than past generations. Thus the sense that as we age, so ages the nation. As one summary of the MacArthur Foundation's study succinctly puts it, "Imagine a society with many more walkers than strollers." In fact, we are no longer imagining such a life: We are on track to live it. We boomers, of course, will write about it, make movies about it, obsess about it, blog about it, photograph it, debate it, discuss it, and document it to death. We will act as though no one had ever reached a ripe old age before us. That's how we roll.

These are Valerie Schultz's opinions and not necessarily those of The Californian.

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