Writing the Backwash with R. H. Sheldon
Growing Old in America: An Age-Related Illness
On a Sunday not too long ago, I joined a group of friends for brunch near Seattle’s Fishermen’s Terminal, home to the North Pacific Fishing Fleet and a place steeped in the region’s nautical past. Fishermen’s Terminal is also where Captain Phil Harris got his start. Captain Phil was made famous by the Discovery Channel show Deadliest Catch.
When Captain Phil died in 2010, he was 53, younger than all of us at the breakfast table, except for one renegade youngster not quite 50. The rest of us, though, had already exceeded Captain Phil’s lifespan by several years—his being a death premature by anyone’s standards. But premature deaths were nothing new to those of us having breakfast, given our front-row seats throughout the AIDS pandemic.
For much of the time, our conversations at both meals focused on subjects related to health and diet and the realities of a deteriorating body. The topics ranged from cancer to heart disease to weight loss to irritable bowel syndrome. Then there were the issues of stiffness and achiness and the ever-increasing limitations that have become our constant companions. The last issue we discussed as we passed around a pair of reading glasses so each of us could see the menu.
As I age, I’m finding that such discussions are becoming more commonplace among my peers. During the week following our brunch, I had over a half-dozen health-related conversations with friends and family, not including our table chatter at Fishermen’s Terminal. And each time I participated in one of these talks, I could not help but think of how, when I was younger, I would smugly dismiss the elderly’s obsession with their maladies.
I have a lot less smugness these days about a lot of things.
But issues of health and illness are only secondary to the bigger concern that haunts all of us—the inevitable process of growing old. Recently, I listened to a podcast in which the speaker discussed aging in America. Were my brain not already so addled, I would no doubt remember his name. One thing I do recall, however, is his comment about ours being the first culture in the history of the world to venerate its teens over its elders. That one stuck with me big time.
Aging in the US is no small matter. According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), the nation’s health and social services programs will soon be inundated with 75 million baby boomers reaching retirement age, which means, like our failing bodies, competition for housing and basic care will grow increasingly stiff. For those whose retirement funds and equity in their homes have not been decimated by the recent recession—those lucky enough to have such assets—the transition into retirement should not be too painful. For the rest of us, though, we have hell to pay.
But I don’t expect to be retiring at 65 anyway, or even 70, for that matter, assuming I can stay healthy enough to work that long. If I don’t, I face the prospects of joining the 3.4 million seniors 65 and older (9.4% of them) already living with incomes below the poverty line. And if you include those whose incomes fall below 150% of that line—that is, those not considered to be living in poverty but who still don’t have enough money to meet their expenses—that rate jumps to 22.4%. That means nearly a quarter of our seniors barely have enough resources to survive.
But as we age, our options grow fewer, and many of us descend into our less-than-golden years with little choice but to become part of those statistics. What complicates issues, according to CAP, is that the poverty rates among seniors are probably much worse than reported because they don’t take into account health care costs, which can severely impact the elderly’s ability to meet other expenses.
Yet because I’m a white male, the odds that I’ll be facing poverty before long are not quite as high as those who fall outside this demographic. It turns out that most of the elderly poor are women, with 11.5% living in poverty, compared to 6.6% of senior men. And it gets worse. The rate for women climbs to 19% if they’re single, divorced, or widowed, and if they’re 75 or older, they’re three times as likely to be living in poverty as their male counterparts.
People of color are also at a severe disadvantage when it comes to aging in America. For starters, they’re less likely than whites to have asset income or private retirement benefits, leaving them more vulnerable to the rigors of growing old. African-Americans, for example, make up only 9% of the elderly population, yet nearly a quarter of them live in poverty.
But keep in mind, the CAP report is somewhat dated. Perhaps current statistics are not so grim. On the other hand, the numbers might now be a lot worse. Whatever they are, those near or below the poverty line continue to struggle to survive. They struggle to pay their utility bills. They struggle to meet the rising cost of food. They struggle for access to public transportation. They struggle against predatory lending schemes. They struggle to avoid bankruptcy as a result of out-of-control medical expenses.
So, yeah, the prospects of aging in this country, particularly after a deep recession, is not an attractive alternative for many Americans. As a result, a fair number of baby boomers are delaying retirement, hoping they live long enough to enjoy it once it arrives. And hoping too they face no health crises before Medicare kicks in, because if they do, those baby boomers are pretty much screwed.
Recently, I watched a video in which Dr. Andrew Weil talks about aging. In it, he discusses his travels to Okinawa, where people are reported to live much longer and healthier lives than people in other parts of the world. He cites several reasons why this might be the case—influences such as diet, activity, and the environment—but he also points out that no single factor fully explains the complexity of aging. However, Weil then adds that the elderly in Okinawa are well respected and cared for and remain a vital part of their communities until they die. He can’t help wondering whether such treatment might play a crucial role in their healthy longevity.
When I look around at they way we treat the elderly in this country, when I consider that, for many, a premature death might be the only affordable option, I can’t help wondering the same thing.