Joel was pushing 60, but he felt good about his life because everyone kept telling him 60 was the new 40. After all, Christie Brinkley had turned 60 and all the celebrity magazines said she looked 35.
No, 60 was just a number, Joel told himself—until that Monday morning when he raced up the escalator in Grand Central Terminal for a meeting and a piercing pain shot through his left knee, sending him stumbling to the steps.
His wife had warned him this day would come. He ran track in high school and college and continued to jog four miles every other day as insurance against getting old.
But maybe he had too much insurance. A few months later, his right knee bothered him, and the pain seemed to come with changes in the barometric pressure. He could predict when it was going to rain as well as the National Weather Service. For a guy who had tried to avoid aging, it was now creeping up on him.
Then he got an email from one of his oldest friends, who said he had a tumor on his lung. If 60 was the next 40, Joel was beginning to think he had suddenly inherited 20 more years of worrying about his health, financial security and whatever else could go wrong.
One day you’re making plans to hike up Mount Washington, and the next you’re prepping for your first colonoscopy. Bette Davis was right when she said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”
Most Americans don’t want to admit they’re growing old in age. The flight from aging amid the pursuit of eternal youth has become a multi-billion dollar industry, and there’s a growing body of literature with titles like, “Younger Next Year”; “Live Longer (52 Brilliant Ideas)”; and “The 17 Day Plan to Stop Aging.” Everyone has a different theory and a different solution, from human growth hormones to cosmetic surgery, from Botox to fillers, from green tea to white tea. And let’s not forget the “Real Age” program, which suggests your chronological age isn’t your real age. (You could actually be younger.)
The 76 million Baby Boomers are redefining what it means to grow old in a new era of increased longevity when the average life span is approaching 80, up from 71 four decades ago. Most people born today will live about 40 years longer than someone born in 1900. These additional years require a new way of thinking about everything from healthcare to finances, and second, if not third, careers.
Dr. Ronald M. Podell, MD, a board certified psychiatrist, is the founder and medical director of the Center for Bio-Behaviorial Science in Los Angeles. Podell says the reality of markedly increased longevity means we have to change how we think about aging if we want the last chapter of life to be fulfilling. We must view it as a new opportunity rather than a “swan song.”
There are almost six million Americans over 85 and society hasn’t begun to address the effects of so-called “Age Wave” on Social Security, Medicare, care-giving, healthcare and the workplace, particularly as Baby Boomers reach 65 at a rate of 10,000 a day.
One of Podell’s clients, a prominent lawyer who was in Alcoholics Anonymous for 12 years, had a “slip” that coincided with his turning 60. “His life was changing,” Podell said. “His firm had a mandatory retirement policy, and he was threatened with losing his job at 65, regardless of his performance.”
His turning 60 with the anxiety about his career, combined with missing AA meetings, led to a drink. One night at a social function, a waiter poured him a glass of wine. It smelled good and he thought, “What harm can one drink do?”
“I told him he still has many productive years left and that he had to look for new opportunities after he’s done working as a lawyer for this firm,” Podell said. “I wanted him to begin looking at the situation as a chance to do something new and exciting rather than as a loss of work he enjoys.”
If Boomers feel forced out of the workplace by young people, it can lead to a sense of helplessness, Podell says, adding that the situation has been exacerbated by the financial crisis of 2008, which wiped out retirement accounts and pensions and forced them to face the prospect of working past 65 and sometimes into their 70s.
“People confront different challenges as they age,” Podell added. “They’re thrust into a different role and have to reconnect. AARP starts sending literature and people wonder, ‘Why am I getting this?’ And they realize they’ve reached their 50s and consider that old.” However, increased longevity also comes with untapped potential, he notes. Advances in medicine, preventive health care and wellness programs can contribute immeasurably to the quality of life in later years.
An optimistic attitude about aging can go a long way. An intergenerational poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion commissioned by Home Instead Senior Care concluded there’s a large gap between what Americans think life is like after 65 and what people over 65 actually experience.
When it comes to aging, Americans expect the worst. For example, 52 percent of those polled said that “not having enough money to live on” is a serious problem for people over 65. However, only 14 percent of people over 65 said it was a serious problem. Almost half of all Americans believe poor health is a serious issue in growing old. However, only 13 percent of people over 65 said it was.
And what about loneliness? 37 percent of Americans thought it was a serious problem but only 5 percent of those over 65 said it was.
The discrepancy between perception and reality was evident in other areas, too, including opportunities to be productive and the ability to deal with technology. This means we erroneously view later life as fraught with misery and difficulties, but the people who have experienced it firsthand are largely positive.
Good news for all of us.
by Joe Pisani