How Society Misunderstands the Elderly

Baby boomers are redefining what it means to be old.

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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.

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.