Facts and Figures About the U.S. Elder Population

Expectations Versus Reality About Old Age

Not too long ago, my Canadian blog friend, doctafil, emailed a story from the Montreal Gazette that contained a lot of statistics and information about how people are growing old in Canada.

The serendipity is that it arrived when I had wondering for awhile if we – you and I, other old people, younger people and the media that report on ageing (who are rarely old themselves) – spend too much time worrying about all the terrible things that can happen to us in our late years.

The thing that worries us all, of course, is an awful diagnosis or the accident – a broken hip, for one example - that can turn us instantly from living in competent independence to helplessness from which we may or may not recover. There are plenty of other things that can wreck our old age plans too.

We are reminded of this from a lot of angles. Discussions of nursing homes – often horror stories. Reports on ageing in place and its alternatives - sometimes, recently, with warnings about the dangers of living alone. Articles reminding us to see our physician at least once a year even if there is no immediate reason. Warnings about drugs interactions and so on.

Pretty much the only good news about growing old are reports of the outliers who climb Mt. Everest at 85 and run marathons at 90 which infer that the rest of us, the 99 percent, aren't keeping up and are, therefore deficient.

(That Montreal Gazette story anchors its report with an interview with an active elder who refuses to give her age but is described by the reporter as having “passed the biblical allotment of three score years and 10 a couple of decades ago.”)

The overview of elders health in the Montreal Gazette story repeats the typically negative way statistics on our group are reported.

”In the 85-and-over age group, 35 per cent of women and 23 per cent of men lived in nursing homes or other care facilities.”

Really?! I think the more honest news is that 65 percent of women and 77 percent of men in that age group do not live in nursing homes or other care facilities.

Here's another example:

”Among Canadians 80 and older, 37 per cent had four or more chronic conditions in 2009, from a list that includes arthritis, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, effects of a stroke and Alzheimer’s...”

That means, if you look at it differently, a large majority, 63 percent of Canadians 80 and older do not have four or more chronic conditions.

Geriatrician Bill Thomas has been saying for years that old people have standing in the United States (undoubtedly Canada too) only as far as they behave like young people – and the widely-believed stereotype is that old age is a terrible time of life filled with disease, debility and decline, a belief that automatically marginalizes elders from participating in society.

It's certainly not untrue that our bodies slow down in all kinds of way as the years pile up but it's not all of us by any means and not even a majority. Take a look at what a wide-ranging, 2009 Pew survey discovered about how elders really live versus younger people's expectations for their own old age:

”About one-in-four adults ages 65 and older report experience memory loss. About one-in-five say they have a serious illness, are not sexually active, or often feel sad or depressed.

“About one-in-six report they are lonely or have trouble paying bills. One-in-seven cannot drive. One-in-ten say they feel they aren’t needed or are a burden to others.

“But when it comes to these and other potential problems related to old age, the share of younger and middle-aged adults who report expecting to encounter them is much higher than the share of older adults who report actually experiencing them.”

Here's the Pew Research chart comparing young expectations to elder reality:

Real v expectations chart

While working on this post, I've been trying to remember what I believed, in my childhood and young adulthood, what old age was like. It's not so easy to do, in my case. There are hardly any elder relatives.

My great Aunt Edith retired from full-time work at age 70 and lived on her own until she got sick at age 89 and died within a few weeks. Until then, she did quite well with some help during the last few years with house cleaning and shopping. She had a wonderful sense of humor about the physical surprises that snuck up on her in old age.

Both my parents died relatively young - my father died in his mid-60s from cancer that had been diagnosed while he was still working so he didn't get to grow old. My mother, even with two hip replacements, lived well on her own until she died at age 75 of cancer.

A couple who were sort of adopted grandparents I knew throughout my childhood were active, healthy and lived on their own until they died. For awhile we thought Ray had become deaf but then realized he only pretended so when he wanted to ignore his wife who always had one more household chore for him, then one more and so on. It became a family joke that he was so selectively deaf.

Friends' parents I knew were healthy and living on their own until into their late 70s and 80s and beyond in a couple of cases so discounting disease, which seems to me to be happenstance over which no one has much control, my personal experience with advanced age is it works out pretty well for most people.

And two of my best online friends that I've known for a decade, Millie Garfield and Darlene Costner, will both be 91 years old this year. They are wonderful role models for any of us who are lucky enough to grow as old as they are.

There is, of course, no way to know with certainty if our expectations affect how our old age turns out to be. But mine are all positive and without being too stupid about it, I think I will just continue to believe that I'll get old similarly.

What about you?

SPEAKING OF LIVING WELL INTO OLD, OLD AGE: On Sunday, our own Darlene Costner will celebrate her 91st birthday. Happy Birthday, Darlene!



Happy Birthday Darlene and many happy returns of the day!

I really enjoy these posts contrasting former and current views of aging, along with data both old and new. I would say my view has changed somewhat since childhood. For one thing, I'm sure that the age at which I consider someone old is much higher now than it was when I was in grade school.

For as long as I can remember, I have felt more comfortable with people older than me, and some of my closest friends have been ten to twenty older than me. I had a dear friend who died at 90 just a few years ago, after a very full and active life until the last couple of years when her fiery mind began to wind down. She was an inspiration to me in so many ways and I can only hope to live as fully as she did until when ever my light might go out.

Another friend now in her 70's, weathered two big hits this year, and has come through them amazingly well. Last year, she was diagnosed with liver failure, due to a form of cirrhosis unconnected to alcohol use. Her chances of surviving that were very slim, but near the 11th hour, she received a liver transplant and just a few months later was up and around and looking great. She takes a boatload of drugs, to prevent rejection, which she's not happy about, but does reliably. Then, while at a dog park a couple of months ago, she got tripped up and fell, breaking a hip. Amazingly, less than a month after her hip surgery, she was back in action again, albeit with a cane. Oh yes, she also had a few dental implants during these last few months as well. She has to be careful how much she does yet, but her sense of humor and style, and her mind, are as sharp, and her eyes as bright, as ever.

I am very grateful to have had these two women, and several other older friends, both male and female, to show me how good life in the later years can be. Some of the dominant traits I've observed among them is a curiosity about life, an interest in other people and how they might be of service to them, and a love of communing with the natural world, in what ever form that might take, gardening, hiking, animals, or all of these.

I'm not sure who really gets credit for the origin of this quote, but as my husband refers to him, the Great and Powerful Oz who consults for Google, shows several references suggesting that John Lennon coined the words: "Count your age with friends but not with years."

Have a great celebratory birth-day on Sunday, Darlene. I hope you realize how inspiring you, your attitudes of openness and curiosity, your forthrightness and clarity - often with a touch of humor, are on TGB. Happy Birthday...

What I got from your post today, Ronni, is that perspective is important and often the expectations of old age or ageing are viewed via the negative side of the equation. Switching the numbers to the more positive side is brilliant in changing up the mental images and not falling into the expected-expectation traps regarding ageing.

I've long believed strongly that our mind and how we use it affects us in immeasurable (and unknown) ways, and I will continue this old age journey with a conscious, positive frame of mind.

I agree, Simone...our mental outlook has a great deal to do with how we age.
Happy Birthday to Darlene...your sense of humor does me humble!
Thanks for the more positive outlook you share, Ronni!

While I scan reports etc. on ageing, long ago I decided I was not a stastistic. Information is always valuable and what we do or not do with it is highly individual. My grandparent, paternal were long livers into their 90's. My parents were also. I only recall all of them just doing their lives, working,having children, hobbies,simple vacations and tight family bonds. I only recall one auntie who lived to 100 ; the notion of old when I was a kid. My folks didn't have long drawn out discussions of being older neither did any of my relatives...they just did their lives...with the good, bad, sad and happy that life is....Happy Birthday Darlene!

Happy Happy Birthday Darlene! You add so much to this blog!

Glass half empty me here---

If you are healthy and your mind works fine and you have money-- none of the realities of old age are too problematic and you can go about happy or at least feeling content.

My father had COPD and was loved but a burden to my mother. My mother became a burden to my sister(I lived on the other side of the country).

My grandparents were loved and everyone vowed to share the burden. But the family that had the daily care was angry that the others did not help more. My parents gave money and visited every week and felt they were doing there part.

From my friends who had family members falling into a needy situation, I noticed the longer the family member lived the more resented or unhappy my friends became with the situation.

I thank my lucky stars so far I am doing so well (knock on wood) but I worry about the future reality.

Well...I will be 87 my next birthday. I have just returned from the Y where I rode the stationary bike for 45 minutes, worked on the resistance weight machines, and now I am getting ready to walk my dog....and then I think I may go to the animal shelter to look for another dog !!!!!
Every dog lover should have at least two dogs ! It is good for dogs' mental health...and humans, too !
So, Darlene, Happy Birthday, and may your light keep burning !!! I plan to keep mine burning for a long time !

Actually, seeing a physician at least once a year even if there is no immediate reason is prudent. Many diseases and conditions don't cause obvious symptoms until they've progressed well past the point of cure or control.

Margaret Kelleher, you're bragging ... and I'm so jealous!! I hope I'm doing half as well when I reach your age.

And Darlene, a very Happy Birthday to you!

Happy Birthday Darlene! and a happy year ahead. I always enjoy your comments.

Recently, my Dr while encouraging me to take a prescription med for osteoporosis, quoted a statistic and tho' I can't quote the exact number, it was something to the effect that 30percent of people in my age group will suffer a broken bone. I pointed out that meant 70 percent will not...to which he softly replied ..."Well...yes." I refused the med but take calcium with vitamin D3 regularly and hope for the best. I tend to see the glass half full.

Darlene, please have a wonderful birthday!

When I was in my mid-years and our family finances were looking rather dicey, I can remember being very worried about ending up one day as a lonely old widow living in a shabby rented room on nothing but tea and toast. After all, I didn't even like tea!

I was being silly. Somehow we ended up with savings and a modest but adequate pension. We both still have our health... more or less. (Each year a little bit less, it's true, but nothing drastic so far.) I think the lesson I need to learn better is to be happier with what I do have, right now. I don't want to waste whatever time I have left, be it three, twelve or twenty more years, always and only mourning one loss after another. Or worse, worrying about future losses that haven't even happened yet. Don't borrow trouble!

All my life I've focused on problems. After all, how else are you going to fix them? But, what if they're not fixable? Then fussing about them can't help, it'll only make me spend all my time being miserable. I'd rather be glad for what remains. Ah, lungs, you're hurting, it's hard to look past that, but -- oh, thank you, hips and knees, for NOT hurting!

Thank you Ronni for showing the statistics from the other side! This is great and I wonder why the media does not present the statistics in this way! My maternal grandmother lived on her own in France until she turned 80 something. At some point, she developed dementia and lived alone with that condition for a year (although family members started spend time with her after it was clear she could no longer live alone until my uncle was able to prepare a place where he could take care of her) My paternal grandfather was the neighborhood "doc" and re-married and lived quite an active life until he was diagnosed with melanoma, which he totally took in stride. Maternal grandfather and Paternal grandmother died at younger ages (cancer and diabetes respectively). That being said, mostly it seems that it is diseases that cause people's demise until late in life when it could be disease or just "splitting" the earth scene.

Everything is a little more difficult and takes more time, but life is good! I am going to ride my wonderful warmblood mare in a schooling show in two weeks, but without my darling daughter who shares my passion it wouldn't happen. A ladder to mount and someone to help with the reluctant right leg and away we will go! I am going to be 89 this year and if I can still ride at ninety two Kat ( my mare) and I can get our centennial trophy and ribbon from the USDF for our ages will total 100. Kudos to USDF for encouraging older riders.

Another glass half empty here. I am 69, in great health AND I know that someday, something is going to take me down. I could die right away, saving my family money and time spent in care or decision-making, or I could die gradually with the opposite effect. (I have experience with the latter during my mother's final 2-year illness and death at age 91.)

This doesn't mean that I don't live my life now, realizing that some slow-down accompanies ageing. I try not to fall into the trap of "successful ageing" means being busy all the time. I am definitely not one of those out-liers.

So I needn't be too surprised at the positive and negative aspects of ageing. We have done our best to figure out how best to take care of ourselves for as long as possible while not being worry-warts. I very much appreciate Ronni's information about the Village movement for providing leadership here. I can't prepare entirely for the future, but I can listen to inner wisdom and take the action that calls to me.

Happy Birthday Darlene! Enjoy today and all the days to come.
And aren't we lucky to have a friend like Ronni! ;-)

Thank you Ronni, for the beautiful bouquet and kind wishes.

Thanks to all of my T.G.I.F. friends for your birthday wishes and lovely comments. All of you make the day very special and I am honored to have you in my life.

My role model for aging gracefully was my paternal grandmother who lived to be 95. Unfortunately she developed dementia around her 90th year. She had sciatica, but was always active until the dementia set in. She lived with my husband and I for nearly two years when she was 93-94. She thought my husband was her son (my dad) and thought I was my mother whom she had never liked, so she treated my husband very nice, but she treated me coldly. It didn't matter to me, I admired her anyway.

She had grown up in a tiny town in central Kansas and had ridden a horse to school. When she finished school she moved by herself to Wichita to find a job. She got a job and supported herself, working in a laundry. Hard work, but still easier than working on a farm doing a man's work. She met an older man whose first wife had died in the Spanish flu epidemic. He had two children and proposed to her. They married and she had two more children. My grandfather had a heart attack and couldn't work for a while. His business partner bankrupted the company and took off with all of the money. My grandmother again went to work to support the family until my grandfather was able to go back to work. My grandmother drove trucks to haul lumber and supplies to build a truck-stop. Before my grandfather died he repaid all the creditors every penny his former partner had swindled from them. My grandmother had scrimped and saved to help him accomplish that feat.

She was a strong and strong-willed person and had a great sense of humor. It was a shame that the dementia took that away from her. It's why I am actually afraid that I may face that myself because both my dad and my mom had dementia before they died.

Happy Birthday, Darlene -- and many more to come!

Happy Birthday Darlene! Love your insights, personal sharing, wisdom and most of all humor! Arrived to post late in the day so if you don't see this, hope you at least have felt all the love coming your way to have a great birthday on Sunday.

Wish they'd run that same survey at earlier decades for the 20-, 30-, 40- somethings. I can recall how I might have answered some of those questions when my life and work was a lot more stress burdened.

You always help me to readjust my view of aging. The statistics you quote show that a lot of people do ok going into their 80s and 90s. Probably me too since my mom is 94 and healthy..

I do agree that it is hard on family members who end up being responsible for aging family members who have health problems. Saw my mom give up 5 years of her life to take care of my dad.

Happy Birthday Darlene

Enjoy your birthday, Darlene. You inspire me with your personality, wisdom and sense of humour.

One of my favourite posts by you was about the time you stomped out of your hospital bed, went to the nurses station and demanded a blanket.

Damn. That was badass!

Keep on smiling. Keep on dancing. Keep us in the loop.

Ronni, an acquaintance is right now celebrating her mother's 100 year birthday at an Italian restaurant party room.

The entire family is in from Toronto, Florida and Montreal.

"You should be dancing, yeahhhh."

First of all, happy birthday. I would like to think of a way, the best way, to celebrate my birthday if I reach that number of years.

Second, while all these statistics are good consumption for one's education, I would not like my life to be dictated by them. If there's something that cannot be taken away from people, it's their freedom of choice.

I choose to defy the odds. I choose not to be bound by those statistics, and I, certainly, have chosen not to be cast into the mold of a doddering old senior.

Have a nice day everyone.

Thanks for finding and describing the middle ground. Neither I nor my husband could climb Mount Everest, however, neither are we decrepit...yet. At 87, David has been diagnosed with Diabetes, Arthritis and now Osteopenia. However, he is taking steps to deal with these ailments. We're not ready for the retir meant home...yet, and maybe never.

Things that have helped me recover from a time of poor health ten years ago. 1) Our new puppy, she is now 10. 2) Keeping blogging and writing; 3) Taking up ballroom dance classes; 4) Being fortunate enough to have a loving husband and family.

I love your way of looking at the positive, yet without the terrible urge to have to act and be young all the time. We are allowed to rest up and enjoy whatever we enjoy.

Every Blessing from Freda at Dalamory. www.freda.org.uk

Don't laugh but, in all seriousness, I had thought that I'd at least be able to regularly enjoy a couple of glasses, or even three, of red wine and I'd sort of have an extended happy hour in my old age. Much to my dismay, as I get older, my tolerance for alcoholic beverages is diminishing rapidly. Very disappointing. If I have two or three "happy hours" a week, that's a lot. My wife and I are having tea most nights now. I never expected this.

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