Fresh Angles on an Older Issue

June 18, 2014

We’re getting older. Not just individually, but as a society. This demographic reality is far from breaking news, yet its reverberations continue to be fertile ground for journalists to shed light on the evolving role of older adults.

To stimulate this reporting, the Columbia Aging Center at the Mailman School in concert with Columbia School of Journalism organizes the annual Age Boom Academy, a three-day crash course funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies that brings together leading experts on aging and journalists interested in the issue.

This year’s Age Boom challenged stereotypes and preconceptions.

Age is much more than a number, noted Ursula Staudinger, PhD, director of the Columbia Aging Center. “Health age” may be a more useful than chronological age since a 65-year-old today is very different from a 65-year-old 100 years ago. They look younger, their health is better, and they can expect to live decades longer. 

left to right: Toni Antonucci and Constance Flanagan

The latest in aging science is proving that it’s possible to forestall age-related physical and mental decline by being active physically and playing an active role in the community. Attitude matters too. Research shows that having a positive outlook on aging can extend life by seven years. And it’s better to identify with your generation than your age group, Staudinger said.

Despite these advances, current thinking about the role of older adults is mired in outdated notions. Today’s seniors have few expectations, said James Firman, EdD, president and CEO of the National Council on Aging.

Instead of spending so much of their day watching television or other passive pursuits, seniors should embrace activities that will improve their health and help make the world better through work, volunteer activities, or spending more time helping younger people. “We have been given this gift of longevity. We shouldn’t waste it all on leisure,” he said.

From Burden to Benefit

A common view is that seniors are a burden on society. Yet the reality is often the opposite. Older generations give more to younger generations than they get back, according to Toni Antonucci, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. They do this through financial gifts, domestic help, and intangibles like emotional support.

Generational warfare is a “dead end and a black hole,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United. Age groups aren’t at odds. Instead they benefit from each other and should find common ground. Intergenerational exchanges that encourage healthy aging and harness the resources of older adults are a positive model for the future.

In Spain, a “homeshare” program offers students free tuition in exchange for helping an elder age in their home. A “time bank” in Maryland allows residents to exchange their volunteer hours. For example, an hour of running errands could be repaid by tapping into the expertise of a retired child development specialist.

Peter Muennig

Shoring Up Social Programs

Several conference speakers pointed to the outsize importance of Social Security in reducing senior poverty. Half of older people today get 75% or more of their income through the program. But the financial security of seniors is under increasing threat: Social Security payments are on track to shrink after 2033, private pensions are disappearing, and retirement savings are minimal and often neglected or mismanaged.

Peter Muennig, MD, MPH, associate professor of Health Policy and Management at the Mailman School, suggested that the only way to pay for Social Security and Medicare is to increase fertility rates or open the nation’s borders to more immigrants. Money can be raised by charging for new green cards with the fee comparable to what is collected by human traffickers, he said.

Yet to properly address the needs of older adults, we need to do more than preserve social programs; they need to be expanded. Andrea Louise Campbell, PhD, professor of political science at MIT, offered a prescription: create true, universal health insurance for all ages; universal daycare and paid family and medical leave; and pay higher wages.

Another popular item on the wish list: social insurance for long-term care of the kind available in Germany, Japan, and Korea. In the United Sates, the only option available to most seniors is to deplete their savings and qualify for Medicaid. “This is a terrible way to treat the disabled elderly,” said Campbell.

The Senior Vote

While older adults may watch too much television, they are far from apathetic when it comes to going to the polls. Since 1950, older adults have gone from the least active voters to the most active. However, contrary to myth, there is no monumental “senior vote.” The group tends to vote along with the rest of the nation. However this may be changing as seniors strive to preserve social programs.  “I think the shift is going to be more toward the Democratic Party,” said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of American Electorate.

Voting participating has declined in every age group except those over age 65. Today’s youth are taking longer to grow up, and postponing exercising their right to vote. They are also less likely to read newspapers. Both, Age Boom attendees agreed,  spell trouble for the nation. “To think about aging, we have to think about young,” said Campbell. “They are the old people of the future.”

P. Mona Khanna

The Write Stuff

The final day of Age Boom centered on covering the aging beat.

James Jackson, PhD, director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, warned Age Boom attendees against using the term “aging society,” which may limit the interest for people in younger age groups. Instead, reporters should write about the issue from the vantage point of young and middle-aged people who will experience aging very differently than seniors today.

The most popular stories written for the New York Times Baby Boomer-oriented “Booming” blog were about the physical limitations encountered by aging musicians Yo Yo Ma and Stevie Nicks. The secret is to write to your curiosity, not what you think people should read, reflected Michael Winerip, the blog’s editor.

It seems identifying with your generation has an upside both for preserving health and readership.