Our Aging, Multicolored Demographic Destiny

America's elderly population will double to 81 million by the year 2040, and there's little evidence we are ready for them. Speakers at the annual Gerontological Society of America discussed the under-preparedness of the country and of retirees.

The U.S. population is growing steadily older, and just as the country isn’t prepared for such a large, older population, individuals are overwhelmingly underprepared, according to the speakers at this year’s The Gerontological Society of America.

Steven P. Wallace, PhD, UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, cuts to the chase as soon as he stands to address a small group of 18 writers at the 65th annual meeting of The Gerontological Society of America in San Diego, Calif., in November. His audience comprises this year’s selection by the MetLife Foundation for its Journalists in Aging Fellows Program.

“This is the first era in history in wealthy countries where most children born will live to see the age 65,” he says. “Last year the first baby boomers — born 1946 — turned age 65, which is the start of what will be a rapid doubling of the elderly population.”

How rapid? America’s elderly population will double to 81 million by the year 2040. And I think, as a retired geriatrician, there’s little evidence we are ready for them.

Wallace’s colleague, Robert Harootyan, MA, MS, is the manager of research at Senior Service America, Inc. He views the way that baby boomers are adding 72 to 78 million to the U.S. population over the next 18 years as the way a pig passes through a python. His audience smiles at his terminology perhaps because they are not yet that old.

Harootyan’s research has found 60% of baby boomers lack the confidence they will live comfortably even as many of the gerontologists at this 65th annual meeting dwell on how unsteady the old “three-legged stool of retirement” has become. The original three legs were employer pensions, personal savings and Social Security but retirement today for those growing exceptionally older may necessitate a fourth leg: working longer.

Harootyan has 40 years of research experience related to aging populations. The most surprising part of his research is “that 24% of the elderly have nothing, nothing, in personal savings!”

I wasn’t surprised that bothered him. I hadn’t realized before this meeting how many gerontologists were also sociologists and political scientists. Their concerns are not necessarily those of economists. They are disturbed by the thought that raising the eligibility age to 67 will give people living in poverty two more years before they get financial assistance for their health care.

To critics who say some older people should surely have saved for their retirement and didn’t, they reply, “We have heard the comment ‘Age may not bring wisdom.’ A young fool can become an old fool — but it is what it is and the poverty level for a single person is just below $11,170 a year!”

Many gerontologists making presentations to the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows made the point about confusing and inaccurate stories constantly circulating in the media.

“Communicating the truth about Social Security and Medicare to the public is a task of Sisyphean proportions,“ says Michael Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written on public policy for three decades for the Los Angeles Times.

(I wonder if maybe physicians serving the elderly would consider it easier to roll a boulder up a hill where at the top it always falls back down than practicing geriatrics in the trenches today.)

Hilzik holds that projections over the next 20 years for Social Security are nonsense. You can’t plan that far ahead because you can’t tell what the world will be like in 20 years. Who 20 years ago could have predicted Google’s arrival, Apple’s success or even the needs of the Defense Department? The only way to make an impact on Medicare, he says — ominously for physicians — is to tackle issues outside the program, namely health care costs.

Hiltzik believes he sees some improvements there, for example, in less use of nursing homes and less proliferation of redundancy but still believes there is excessive spending in health care.

Physicians need to question economists on that. Indeed, another presenter to the MetLife Foundation Fellows, Elizabeth Isele, co-founder of SeniorEntrepreneurshipWorks.org, says she has a similar comment for journalists and school children: “What questions did you ask today?”

One of the more experienced journalists in the audience, Warren Wolfe, an award-winning staff writer for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minn., speaks out maybe in writers’ defense, “If you think you have the answers you’re probably wrong!”

Eric Anderson, MD, lives in San Diego. He is the one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice. His commentaries on aging are part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows Program organized by The Gerontological Society of America and New America Media. Anderson was a senior contributing editor at Physician’s Management from 1983 until 1998 (when the magazine ceased publication). He wrote a monthly column for both Postgraduate Medicine and Geriatrics for many years. Anderson is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.