In the past retirement age has been about stopping. Now it needs to be about going. The senior years should not be an excuse for anything, let alone abandoning life.
Our population is growing older at the fastest pace in history. In most of North America, the number of seniors aged 65 and older will exceed the number of children under the age of 15 by 2015. By 2031, every baby boomer – a generation that numbers 80 million – will be over age 65. The oldest boomers will be 88. By then, seniors will account for fully one quarter of the North American population.
These changing demographics, combined with the increasing human lifespan, make it necessary to re-evaluate how society thinks about old age. For example, in many parts of Asia, octogenarians (eighties) and nonagenarians (nineties) have traditionally been viewed as jewels of society and proud symbols of the country. Western society is finally letting go of its past-tense view of seniors as people who have “had their time.” Seniors are regaining their status as extremely valuable members of the community. A 2001 survey by Erdman Palmore revealed that 31 percent of respondents over 65 reported being ignored or not taken seriously because of their age. “As we age, we crave the same respect and consideration that we garnered in our adult years,” says Dr. Robert N. Butler of the International Longevity Center. “We must work together as a society to promote positive attitudes and portrayals of older people. We must not fail to respect and protect the rights of older people.”
There has been recent success in stopping negative age stereotypes that used to be prevalent in movies and television. At a 2003 Senate hearing on ageism, Doris Roberts, the Emmy-award winning actress in her seventies from the television show Everybody Loves Raymond, testified against inaccurate media portrayals of the elderly. “My peers and I are portrayed as dependent, helpless, unproductive and demanding rather than deserving,” Roberts testified. “In reality, the majority of seniors are self-sufficient, middle-class consumers with more assets than most young people, and with time and talent to offer society.”
Government officials would do well to heed what seniors say. People 65 and older are by far the most prolific voters in North America. In the 2004 United States Presidential election, over 70 percent of people over age 65 voted. Currently, more than one in every five votes is cast by someone 65 or older, and their numbers are continuing to rise faster than any other group of voters. It’s also essential for seniors to have a positive view of themselves. In a longevity study conducted by Yale University, following 660 people age 50 and older, those with more positive self-perceptions about aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative self-perceptions of aging. People’s own positive attitudes toward old age appear to boost their mental health in later years. The results of the study also indicated that seniors who identify with positive stereotypes about aging had significantly better memory and balance, whereas negative self-perceptions contributed to worse memory, feelings of worthlessness and even greater susceptibility to falls.