Americans are aging at an incredible rate as the generation of individuals born into the “baby-boomer” generation hit retirement age. There are many struggles that individuals face as they enter into “old age” or the age of 65 and older. As people age they are faced with loss of family and friends who provide support financially, socially, and emotionally while also facing their own deterioration of health. Throughout time seniors have struggled with overcoming stereotypes and stigmas about aging but with rising health care costs and the poor economy seniors in 2013 are facing a greater amount of financial struggles including homelessness, poverty and the stigmas associated with being a “lower class”.
The United States Census Bureau considers a baby boomer to be someone born during the demographic birth boom between 1946 and 1964 post World War II. The baby-boom generation has been defined as extending from 1943 through 1960, when annual births increased over 4,000,000. Seventy-six million American children were born between 1945 and 1964. As of 1998, it was reported that, as a generation, boomers had tended to avoid discussions and planning for their demise and avoided much long-term planning. However, beginning at least as early as that year, there has been a growing dialogue on how to manage aging and end-of-life issues as the generation ages.
Baby Boomers are in a state of denial regarding their own aging and death and are leaving an undue economic burden on their children for their retirement and care. Economists and demographers expected a large exodus from the workforce as the first baby boomers reached 60 in 2006, yet the weakened economy and rising health care costs are causing many aging Americans to delay retirement. The percentage of U.S. residents ages 55 to 64 in the work force rose from 63.3 percent in April 2007 to 64.8 percent in February 2008, an increase of more than 1 million workers. (Cawthorne, 2008) According to the 2011 Associated Press surveys 60% lost value in investments because of the economic crisis, 42% are delaying retirement and 25% claim they will never retire.
Baby boomers will put unprecedented strains on entitlement programs. This is largely due to increase in longevity. Longevity is one of the great accomplishments of the 20th century. A child born in 1999 could expect to live 76.2 years while a child born in 1900 had a life expectancy of only 47 years. The increase in longevity is due to the reduction in infant mortality and death rates in childhood predominantly through public health measures as well as the more recent decrease in death rates among middle-aged and older people through advances in self-care and medical science. (Andrew Scharlach, 2000) In 1940, life expectancy was 63.5 years, some 9 million Americans received Social Security, and the ratio of workers to beneficiaries was 159 to 1. By 2010, life expectancy was 78.3 years, nearly 39 million people received Social Security benefits, and the ratio of workers to retirees was 2.9 to 1, and this was before the first boomer turned 65. (Rowley, 2012)
Aging Americans, like other age groups, are feeling the effects of the declining real estate and stock markets, as well as soaring fuel and food prices. Seniors’ economic security will only increase in importance as the U.S. population ages. The nation’s health and social services resources will face unprecedented demand as 75 million people in the baby boomer generation reach retirement age. (Cawthorne, 2008) Currently, 3.4 million seniors age 65 and older live below the poverty line. Millions more are barely making ends meet just above the poverty line.
With increasing age comes an increase in chronic illness that affects functioning. The aging process reduces reserve capacity and lessens the body’s ability to respond to stress at both the organ and the system level. Chronic disease is the single biggest driver of health care costs. More than 60 percent of people over age 65 live with one or more chronic diseases; that rises to 70 percent by age 80. (Rowley, 2012) The chronic conditions that most frequently limit daily functioning are arthritis, hypertension, decreased lung function, hearing impairment, Alzheimer’s or other dementias, and heart disease. The current poverty measure gives no consideration to health care costs, among other problems. High medical bills for the elderly can greatly reduce the income available to meet their other needs (Cawthorne, 2008) Medical spending for those between the ages of 55 and 64 is almost twice the amount spent by those between the ages of 35 and 44. Older consumers with the lowest incomes struggle the most to pay their utility bills. Health care costs have contributed to the rise in bankruptcy filings among the elderly. (Cawthorne, 2008) Since chronic illness and its management relate intimately to self-care, social support, community resources, and social work interventions are crucial to successful long-term care. (Andrew Scharlach, 2000)
The family is overwhelmingly the primary source of support for older adults requiring ongoing assistance or long-term care. It is consistently estimated that the family provides 85% of the long-term care in this country. Women have been predominantly the providers of elder care however, with an increasing amount of women ages 40 to 54 in the labor force the ability for family to provide support and care is decreasing. Along with the decrease of care available from children there is also a decrease in assistance available from a spouse or partner. The divorce rate has increased; over fifty percent of all marriages now end in divorce as compared to ten percent at the end of the 19th century, further adding to the complexity of the contemporary family. (Andrew Scharlach, 2000) This change in family structure also limits the ability of aging seniors to depend on their family for support, increasing the need for assistance from government and state programs to help in maintaining their health and well being.
As with other age groups, poverty does not affect senior men and women equally. Gender and ethnicity must also be recognized as having significant effects on the experience of aging. Looking at gender differences there is a seven-year life expectancy differential for women over men. Females born in 2005 were expected to reach age 81 and men 74 (U.S. Census Bureau, 1996). Women are more likely to live alone and to live alone longer. They are also more likely to live alone with functional limitations, and to be poor. (Andrew Scharlach, 2000) A lifetime of lower earnings due to wage discrimination, absence from the labor market due to childbirth, and jobs that are less likely to have employer-sponsored retirement plans takes its toll. (Cawthorne, 2008) Over 2.3 million women over the age of 65 live at or below the poverty line, while slightly over 1 million of senior men live in poverty. (Cawthorne, 2008) Nearly one in five of single, divorced, or widowed women over the age of 65 are poor, and the risk of poverty for older women only increases as they age. (Cawthorne, 2008) Among married women, longer female life expectancy makes it likely that they will outlive their spouses, and be left without any additional sources of income they bring to the household. (Cawthorne, 2008)
Ethnic minorities are at greater risk of economic insecurity in late life than white people; they have poorer health status, and are more likely to be socially isolated. The effects of gender and race over the life course are particularly intense for older, minority women who live alone and are the poorest group in our society. Social Security plays a significant role in raising the incomes of many people of color above the poverty line. Elderly people of color are less likely than whites to receive private retirement benefits and are far less likely to have asset income, including interest on bank accounts and investments, dividends, rental income on property, and estates and trusts. (Cawthorne, 2008)
Rural elderly have higher rates of poverty than the urban elderly, and rural areas tend to have a higher percentage of elderly in their total population than their urban counterparts. These higher numbers are due to a mixture of economic pressures forcing younger rural inhabitants to migrate to urban areas in search of jobs, and the tendency for rural elderly to age in place. Rural people are less likely than their urban counterparts to leave their homes when they retire. Elderly residents of rural areas may have less access to necessary services and rely more heavily on private transportation. (Cawthorne, 2008) Only one half of Americans 65 or older have access to public transportation to meet their daily needs. Yet research shows the elderly use public transportation when it is available, and that access to goods and services reduces their isolation and increases their mobility. The elderly who do not drive take an estimated 310 million trips per year on public transportation. (Cawthorne, 2008)
Another struggle that the aging population is facing is ageism. Ageism is similar to racism and sexism in that it involves discrimination, placing older people in a marginal social position. The stigma stems in large part from negative stereotypes of the elderly as well as views of aging as irreversible physical, psychological, and social losses. This perspective on aging and the elderly contributes to the view that aging service is not a valuable area to provide support, services or funding. Elders are also frequently looked at as stupid and vulnerable due to their dependence on others as their health deteriorates. Many elders are treated as though they all have dementia or memory impairments or are thought to be senile.
The role of social services in the care of the elderly continues to be increasingly important as the number of Americans reaching old age continues to grow. Social workers who work with the elderly strive to reach the ultimate goals which include preservation of maximum independence, optimal functioning, dignity, and quality of life through personal empowerment and effective and efficient service utilization. Social work practice at both individual and community levels must address the current and increasing demands of an aging society. Social work can assist the baby-boomers in aging well and help them and their families to navigate the confusing web of services as well as prepare families to meet their increasing care giving responsibilities. Social work must also develop health and social service programs to better serve the needs of the elderly and advocate for policies that support older adults and their families.
Andrew Scharlach, J. D.-R. (2000). Educating Social Workers for an Aging Society: A Vision for the 21st Century. Journal of Social Work Education.
Cawthorne, A. (2008). Elderly Poverty: The Challenge Before Us. Center for American Progress.
Census, U. D. (1996). Populations of the United States by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin: 1995 to 2050. Current Populations Reports , 25-1130.
Damron-Rodriguez, J. (2000). Department of Social Welfare.
Rowley, L. (2012). Baby Boomers Will Transform Aging America. Huffington Post.
Statistics, F. I.-R. (2012). Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well-being. Washington DC: US Government Printing.
Valerie Lawson, K. K. (1996). Aging in the United States: Past, Present & Future. National Institute on Aging.