Facing the Realities and Adversities of Aging

Facing the Realities and Adversities of Aging

November 12, 2019 | by Thomas Day

Getting older is definitely not a cakewalk. If there is one thing that is true for every living person on this planet it is that everyone of us will get older and eventually die. No one yet has ever figured out a way around this fact of life. And it is also a given that as our bodies age every one of us will be more susceptible to developing one or more of the 3 D's – disease, disability or dementia. Chances are many individuals who are not even at retirement age have already developed one or more of these conditions. In this message I’m going to address the myth that the so-called "Golden Years" are available to all seniors. For many it really is a myth. A large number of seniors are affected by what I will call here the realities and adversities of aging. The dictionary defines adversity as: "an unfortunate event or circumstance."

The American Dream of Retirement

The concept of retirement is a fairly recent invention dating back to a novel German government policy in 1883 that forced older workers to become unemployed and in return paid them a government pension until they died. The idea was to free up jobs for younger workers. Eventually this concept was adopted by all modern industrialized economies. Throughout history, prior to the idea of retirement, people just simply worked until they died or became too disabled to work. And in many areas of the world this is still true. Nowadays, retirement is viewed as a reward for working hard at a job that is less than desirable. Retirement represents an extended period of rest and reward for the perceived undesirable activity of working throughout one’s lifetime.

For many, the ideal retirement dream is to leave their job, qualify for Social Security and possibly a pension, tap into savings, move to a warmer climate, and live out the rest of their lives in leisurely activities like sitting by the pool, reading, playing golf, partying with others, playing cards, watching TV or streaming video, traveling, cultivating hobbies, and doting on the grandchildren. Unfortunately this dream of living out the "golden years" in a perceived state of contentment and happiness is only true for a part of the population. For others, the realities and adversities of aging get in the way.

The Reality of Dying Too Soon

The "Social Security Period Life Table" for 2016 (most recent table available) predicts that for all men born in the United States, by the year 2016, about 80% of men will still be alive at age 65 or in other words 20% will have died. For women 88% are alive or 12% have died. At age 70, 27% of men have died and 17% of women are gone. At age 80 Only 51% of men will be alive and only 64% of women are still with us. By age 85 only 35% of men are alive with 49% for women alive.

There is a window of about 15 years from age 65 through through age 80 where roughly 20% to 50% of all men have passed on. On the other hand, during this same period of time there are a lot more women still alive. The message here is some of those who are planning for a wondrous retirement – that desired time of unemployment prior to death – may not even make it or they may die with only a few years under their belt enjoying the so-called "golden years."

The Adversity of Poor Health

Poor health is a major reason why many older Americans do not experience the retirement dream. Chronic disease often prevents people from participating in any meaningful activities or even leaving their homes. According to the National Council on Aging, approximately 80% of older adults have at least one chronic disease, and 77% have at least two. The American Society of Consultant Pharmacists lists the most common chronic diseases affecting the elderly as the following:

  • Adult onset diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Kidney and bladder problems
  • Dementia
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Glaucoma
  • Lung disease
  • Cataracts
  • Osteoporosis
  • Enlarged prostate
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Macular degeneration
  • Depression
  • Cardiovascular disease

The Effect of Inadequate Income and Lack of Savings

According to the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, more than half of Americans will have to rely solely on Social Security benefits. The average Social Security retirement benefit in June 2019 was about $1,470 a month, or about $17,640 a year. But that’s an average. This means Social Security for many recipients is much less – say around $12,000 a year because they took it at an earlier age. The Social Security incomes for a couple might be enough to maintain an adequate lifestyle in retirement, but for single individuals or widows, it is likely not enough to provide more than a meager existence.

The Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies reports that the median retirement savings for Americans in their 60s is $172,000. This is generally far too little money to support a successful retirement. Half of all Americans are above this level and half are below. For the half that are below, savings are even less sufficient to maintain retirement. If these folks are relying entirely on Social Security and have very little savings, they don’t have much of a future to look forward to. The retirement dream of traveling to exotic places, living in expensive retirement communities and golfing for the remainder of their lives is exactly that – an unfulfilled dream.

The Reality of Losing Independence

Nearly 40% of people age 65 and older have at least one disability, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey that covered the period 2008 to 2012. Of those 15.7 million people, two-thirds of them said they had difficulty in walking or climbing stairs. Difficulty with independent living, such as visiting a doctor’s office or shopping, was the second-most cited disability, followed by serious difficulty in hearing, cognitive difficulty, difficulty bathing or dressing, and serious difficulty seeing. The Administration for Community Living has determined that 69% of those turning age 65 today will need, at some point, some type of long-term-care services—either at home, in their community or in a facility. Typically, women need care longer (3.7 years, on average) than men (2.2 years). And while about 30% of people who are 65 may never need long-term care, 20% of those who are 65 and older will need it longer than 5 years. Dealing with the loss of independence significantly interferes with those dreams of enjoying the golden years.

Coping with the Realities and Adversities of Aging

Perhaps the most important approach for coping with the realities and adversities of aging is to quit dreaming about that future retirement Nirvana. As I have pointed out above, it just may not happen whether there are adequate savings and income or not. The key is to start doing those things now that you are wanting to do in the future. Take that trip, do that cruise, enjoy that tour. Do stuff with the family now instead of dreaming about it. A lot of workers hold onto their vacation time or sick time in anticipation of converting that into income. My suggestion is to use it and do those things now that you think you are going to do when you retire but may not be able to do when you actually get to that point in the future.

A growing trend in this country is to not plan for retirement at all but continue working even though there might not be a need for that extra employment income in the senior years. If the retirement is forced upon them, many will seek other employment. Additionally, many individuals have decided that they are unhappy with their current employment and seek new employment skills that are more fulfilling. They actually do something about their dissatisfaction rather than complaining about it. Or many just simply quit and start new businesses. In addition, many who have stopped working are not that happy with a lack of purpose in retirement and decide to go back to work by learning new skills or by starting their own businesses. I have one acquaintance who retired from a highly professional management position with more than enough income and assets to live comfortably, but his whole life he wanted to be a truck driver. Now in his early 80s he is hauling freight and absolutely loves it. He doesn’t need the income.

For those who are retired and do need extra income, learn new skills that can generate income. Over the years, I have grown tired of hearing from countless seniors how they are too old to learn new things. Unless they truly have cognitive impairment, there is no excuse. They just don’t want to be challenged with new things. It is important to learn computer skills. Engage in writing essays, blogging or emailing friends or family, writing personal histories or using the computer to do genealogical research. Browse the Internet to learn all about other places and people. Read biographies and histories and learn geography. Read the classics and entertain age-old philosophies and ideas. Learn new languages. Learn computer languages and do coding. Use Google Earth and Google Street View to visit far-off places that you never will have access to.

If your hands don’t work and you can’t type then use Dragon NaturallySpeaking. With today’s technology there is simply no excuse for most people with disabilities to become inactive and not be productive. If you are in pain or suffering, do something worthwhile for others. If you are disabled and relying on others, find a purpose in life. If you don’t have enough income or assets, research ideas on how to supplement income. Don’t just sit there and feel sorry for yourself. Exercise regularly even if you are impaired. Keep your brain active through reading, researching and interacting with others. Maintain good nutrition, drink plenty of water and make sure to supplement with vitamin B12 and vitamin D which are generally deficient in most aging seniors.

Perhaps the real value of a life well lived, for all seniors, is not finishing out those final years wasting time on selfish and indolent pursuits, but being actively involved in improving the lives of our fellow man. I believe the following poem expresses this idea in a wonderful manner.

By Will L. Thompson

Have I done any good in the world today?
Have I helped anyone in need?
Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad?
If not, I have failed indeed. Has anyone's burden been lighter today
Because I was willing to share?
Have the sick and the weary been helped on their way?
When they needed my help was I there?

There are chances for work all around just now,
Opportunities right in our way.
Do not let them pass by, saying, "Sometime I'll try,"
But go and do something today.
'Tis noble of man to work and to give;
Love's labor has merit alone.
Only he who does something is worthy to live.

The world has no need for a drone.
Then wake up and do something more
Than dream of your mansion above.
Doing good is a pleasure, a joy beyond measure,
A blessing of duty and love.

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