Everyone knows that when you get old you become stupid and often crotchety and infirm. You read the headlines, “ Elderly Man (Woman) Scammed in Reward Scheme”, or “Elderly Man (Woman) Hits Accelerator Instead of Brake”. Then you read that these people are 65 which is an old description of elderly.

  So, we get government alerts on what the elderly should drink and eat, warnings about the heat and the cold (kind of like the warning about our pets), politicians (some in their 70s) concerned that the elderly won’t be able to figure out details of a health plan, and special discounts on meals and events. Television portrays the old as eccentric, confused, and in definite need of watching.

  AARP considers 55 old so you can get discounts and special favors like their highly profitable insurance programs and politicians consider special programs to attract their vote. The federal government considers age 62 old enough to qualify for Social Security and 65 old enough for Medicare, and subsidized housing and special drug programs. In general, the over 62-65 group is talked down to, protected, even coddled, subsidized and definitely used politically.

  In the meantime, this group is churning along quite comfortably. They’re living into their 80s, and 90s, and the over 100s is a rapidly expanding group. They’re actively playing sports, traveling and vacationing (from what?), buying second homes (until the recession), figuring out complicated retirement programs, and drug subsidy programs, and taking courses in everything from aerobics and yoga to music, mathematics and literature, having more time and discretionary income.

  Older people vote at a higher rate than younger people. The great majority can read and write and figure out complex numbers even if they aren’t as quick and agile with a video game or a little slow picking up the latest in electronic gadgetry. They generally read more and think more about the local, state and national political issues, and are often volunteering and contributing for and to needy causes. Some go back to work even without a financial need. As an aside, I have a college class mate from France who, when he was forced to retire at age 55, is not permitted to rejoin the work force in France. He is a very unhappy camper.

  Surveys show that in general and as a group, the so-called elderly, are doing quite well.  Several years ago, our United Way in Western Pennsylvania did a comprehensive needs survey of the community. The only group that was not needy were the over 65. These were the people who were concerned about the younger group, about the drugs and crime and high costs of housing and college, and the lack of jobs. I jokingly said then that what the community needed was everyone to be over 65.

  That picture, of course, is not the whole picture. Not everyone is well off. Visit an assisted care nursing home, or talk to someone whose life savings were clobbered by the recession, or talk to someone living only on Social Security. Those are real-life people who are struggling, even with help, as they get older and do have severe health, housing and monetary problems. There’s no escaping that.

  However, the broader picture also sticks. And, will the broader picture prevail? It appears to me that many of the government programs for the so-called elderly, particularly Medicare, Social Security, and housing programs worked, or at least helped a lot. It is also true that a lot of the now retired planned privately for their retirement.

  The big question is whether, with people living so many more years than originally anticipated, the country can afford the subsidized programs as they are now structured.   Frankly, I doubt it. Programs will have to be limited to reflect longevity as well as outside income. Something has got to give unless we’re content to bring down the living standards of everyone and destroying the private retirement plans many have.

  For the moment, however, quit talking down to the elderly (remember, the term “elderly” drops to as low as 55). They’re a pretty dynamic group.


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