Ageism in a modern society

greedy simpsonAre you a greedy geezer? You know, one of those resource-draining, money-sucking seniors at the center of the debate on some of the nation’s most important health policy issues (e.g., Medicare, Social Security)? If not, rest assured that you will be at some point. Or at least so goes the myth. Old people have morphed into the new ‘welfare queens’ of the future in that there is a pervasive public perception that old people are greedy and consume resources to the detriment of the younger members of society. These sentiments not only feed into public discourse about policy decisions, but contribute to an even larger issue of intergenerational division and age segregation.

You may be wondering why (or even if) age segregation is a significant public health issue. Indulge for a moment in a brief thought experiment and substitute the word “age” in the previous sentence for “racial” or “residential” segregation. Decades of research have concluded that segregation is bad for the health of individuals, communities and society at large. While researchers have scrutinized residential segregation and health disparities in great detail, segregation by age has received far less attention. grandpa simpson happy Yet age segregation represents one of the most important policy-relevant issues facing a future aging society. Why? On a fundamental level, age segregation blocks essential opportunities for interaction and discussion across generational lines, which may foster cultural dissonance and ageism (e.g., greedy geezer myth). We (non-old adults) rarely forge relationships with older adults, and are left to form our own assumptions, biases and stereotypes based on very little factual information. Second, for older adults, age segregation is a threat to continued productive activities, mobility and exercise, and it thwarts embeddedness, social interaction, and increases the risk for isolation and loneliness in later life. The benefits of social embeddedness have been well documented. Furthermore, because elders are at increased risk of decline in functional independence as they age, having a network of close friends and family that can provide support may be particularly useful for maintaining well-being and an independent aging-in-place lifestyle in later years.

Simpson togetherThus, shifting perceptions and stereotypes about old people is ultimately paramount to aging policy and interventions geared toward accommodating and integrating older adults into the fabric of American society. So what do we do as public health researchers? How do we design interventions to promote an age-integrated society? How can intergenerational social bonds be strengthened? And finally, how do we address the issue of age and the structural lag for current and future generations of aging adults?

One means of achieving such a shift entails promoting generativity, or more specifically, a generative society. A generative society can evolve by motivating and incentivizing prosocial and cooperative behaviors, and perhaps most importantly, designing generativity-based programs that are sustainable. Early foundational research in this area has found that creating intergenerational programs that provide educational benefits for the young and allow the old to serve in productive roles is a viable means to reduce generational tension and create successfully aging societies. My work to date examines generativity as a feature of personal development and a correlate of successful aging. I believe expanding this work will help bridge the gap between translating individual motivations for prosocial and cooperative behaviors to a community-level effort, and provide the framework for building strategies that will increase the visibility and integration of older adults into communities.

Retirement years not so golden?

Have we all been bamboozled by the delusions of a good life post-retirement? It’s an interesting point. While I think there is value in productive roles throughout the lifespan, I believe there are multiple ways to achieve that productivity. Work is only one, of many productive roles. Furthermore, given the amount that Americans work, it still doesn’t address why we are among the lowest in life expectancy, compared to other industrialized nations.

This suggests that we not only promote older adults to work longer, but we also need to re-consider our work policies like workplace flexibility and part-time work that would allow older adults to remain engaged in work roles, while still transitioning to other roles that may be equally important (e.g., work-family balance is still important for grandparents).

From the NPR Special Series on Retirement:

One in four retirees think life in retirement is worse than it was before they retired, according to a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health released today. The poll shows stark differences between what pre-retirees think retirement will be like, and what retirees say is actually the case.

“Those of us over 50 and working are optimistic about our future health and health care, but that optimism is not necessarily shared by those who have already retired,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Many people who have already retired say their health is worse, and they worry about costs of medical treatment and long-term care. Insights from the poll can help policy makers and others think about how to meet the needs of aging Americans. There are changes we can make to our health care system, finances and communities that might help ensure that our retirement years will be as fulfilling as we hope.”

The poll focuses on views and experiences related to retirement among people over age 50, including not only people who have retired, but also people who plan to retire (“pre-retirees”) and those who do not plan to do so. It was conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Findings show that a large majority of retirees say life in retirement is the same (44%) or better (29%) than it was during the five years before they retired. Many retirees say their stress is less, their relationships with loved ones are better, their diet is improved and the amount of time they spend doing favorite activities is increased—yet 25 percent of retirees say life is worse.

“The poll shows that a significant number of people who are near retirement may be underestimating the challenges of retirement,” said Robert Blendon, professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. “When you compare what people think retirement will be like with what retirees say it actually is like, there are big differences. Pre-retirees may underestimate the degree to which their health and finances may be worse in retirement.”

The poll shows only 14 percent of pre-retirees predict that life overall will be worse when they retire, compared to the 25 percent of retirees who say it actually is worse. Only 13 percent of pre-retirees thought their health would be worse, while 39 percent of retirees say it actually is. Less than a quarter of pre-retirees (22%) predict their financial situation will be worse, while a third of retirees (35%) said it actually is.

Findings also show that pre-retirees expect to retire later than those who are already retired and some expect never to fully retire. A sizeable majority of pre-retirees (60%) expect to retire at age 65 or older, while only 26% of current retirees polled said they waited to retire at age 65 or older. More than one in 10 pre-retirees (15%) say they never expect to fully retire.