December 1, 2010 Volume 3 Issue 16
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Sybil W. Coleman
We’re getting older. Really. In fact, the demographic reality in the United States right now suggests an older population that is so significant it’s making history by its sheer size. The entire country of Canada, for instance, has approximately 33 million residents while those in the U.S. now over 65 years old has just reached 35 million. By the year 2023, the United States will probably look a lot like Florida where one in every five individuals is over 65 years of age.
In other words, we’ve come a long way from the early 1900s when the average life expectancy was 47. In 1995, it was 76. And the median age has also climbed from 23 years of age in the early 1900s, to 28 in 1970, and 35 in 2000. By 2040, it’s expected to reach 42.
But this doesn’t have to be bad news. Yes, many social institutions—and most of us if we’re honest—tend to respond negatively to aging, as if it were comprised only of a series of losses and challenges. Yet, in the process, we can overlook the positive experiences aging can bring and the opportunities it affords all of us.
For instance, as our aging population increases, the demands on our society increase as well. A number of recent studies have begun raising concerns about the social, political and even ethical implications for the next generation of leaders in responding to the age issue. Though today’s medical profession has more technology and capability than ever before to keep us alive longer, only one percent of today’s nurses are certified in geriatrics or gerontology. People are not only living longer, they’re working well into their golden years, volunteering or trying to hang on to dear jobs and incomes threatened by the economy. For this latter group who want to remain involved in their communities but are on the brink of potential crisis, a new array of services will be required to help these residents maintain their quality of life.
Therein lies an opportunity. Our growing aging population provides great options for anyone looking for jobs. Those entering nursing, social work or mental health professions, for example, can expect to be a part of the fastest growing occupations over the next 15–20 years.
But beyond the economic opportunities we have to care for this high percentage of people 65 or older, six percent of who are 85 years and over, we need to ask ourselves some harder questions. How can we foster a celebration of aging? How can we engage those older women and men among us with the younger population and with children? How can we keep the elderly from becoming invisible in a youth-oriented culture often in denial about aging?
We could start in those community centers that tend to foster positive perspectives, that is, our churches, synagogues, or temples who can create avenues that publicly affirm the contributions of our older members in front of the next generation. We could ask for their wisdom, invite them to our businesses, classrooms and homes to advise us in our lives and work, to share their stories. We could address them with the dignity and worth we ourselves long for from others.
I know of many older people still serving on major boards or remaining actively involved in community efforts. I’m on the board of one nonprofit and some of my colleagues are men who have served well into their eighties. Their minds are sharp, and their personal histories helped us as an organization avoid making quick decisions without looking at the consequences.
Admittedly, though, not all aging adults retain their quickness. And so, we also need to be paying attention to the victimization of the elderly. Scams are rampant, identity theft great and many elderly today suffer from both abuse and neglect. These are tragedies that shame a country.
In a state rich with social services, how is it possible that a few weeks ago an 80-year-old Boston woman was found dead in her chair because her family had abused and neglected her? She was malnourished, soaked in her own urine and dead for days before being found by authorities. That family members as well as social service professionals—or those purporting to be either—can ignore or con the elderly out of their life’s worth or savings is also proof for the need for advocates in elder law who can provide protection. Perhaps because of media reports in the past we think abuse happens in nursing homes or in elder care. But that’s rare. It is often in their own homes, in familiar settings and with people they’ve known for years that they become most vulnerable.
Which is why all of us need to engage the elderly, to celebrate those who are aging, and to protect, empower, and recognize that each of our elders is made in the image of God with dignity and worth that matters until the day they pass on.
After all, we’re headed in the same direction.
Sybil W. Coleman is professor of sociology and social work at Gordon College. She and her husband live in Beverly, MA.