Young olds? Turns out not all seniors are created equal
Patricia von zur Muehlen crosses plush carpet toward a kitchen, checking on the tea kettle and the man she works for as a live-in caregiver. In the back of the quiet apartment in the Central West End, she prepares a cup of Swee-Touch-Nee for him. It’s an orange pekoe, delivered in bulk from New York, and it’s his favorite. When his tea is ready, she comes back up front and settles into a chair.
In March, von zur Muehlen turns 69. The man she cares for is in his 80s. Past an age when many retire, she’s still working.
But she loves this work, loves caring for people, and even though it’s not the career she set out for, she is, at least, doing one thing that she planned.
“At a very young age, I decided that I was going to be a hip old person,” she says, thinking: “When I’m old, I don’t want to act old, I don’t want to be elderly. I just realized then that I’m going to live my life. I don’t want to sit in a chair.”
Seniors are, most commonly, considered to be anyone 65 and older. But demographers have recognized for a while now that not all seniors are created equal.
“At the very least, we have to think of people in terms of ‘young olds,’ ‘old olds’ and ‘oldest olds,’” says Tom Meuser, a clinical psychologist and director of the gerontology graduate program at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.
Those categories break into decade slices. “Young olds” are 65-75, “old olds” are 75-85, and “oldest olds” are 85-95. That categorization allows for demographers, gerontologists and, in some case, public policy makers, to examine the needs of each group, which can be quite different. These categories reflect not just numbers, but also the different stages of aging, says Mark Tranel, director of the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri St. Louis.
While issues related to health and mobility can happen at any time, in general, he says, “young olds” might still be working, they enjoy better health, participate more in the community and contribute more to the economy. “Old olds” tend to be less active and may need assisted care because of issues with health and mobility. And “oldest olds” might face more dramatic changes in lifestyle — such as moving to a nursing home, losing the ability to drive and coping with declining health.
The categorization also recognizes something that more and more Baby Boomers and “young olds,” like von zur Muehlen, are proving with their own lives. Growing old is not what it used to be. It is, instead, defined by things such as health, personalities, social interactions, expectations and economic security.
“We used to think of aging only in terms of deficit and decline,” Meuser says. “And that’s changed markedly.”
‘When I'm 64...’
In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. In 1940, according to the Social Security Administration, men who made it to 65 would live for an average of 12.7 more years, and women 14.7 more years. That year, there were 9 million Americans 65 and older. In 2000, there were 34.9 million. In 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 39.6 million age 65 and over, with a projected population of 88.5 million by 2050.
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According to a 2010 report from the Census, the number of people aged 65 to 74 grew 35 percent from 2000 to 2010. People aged 75 to 84 grew 14.8 percent, and people 85 to 94 grew 60 percent over the decade.
Over several decades, our ideas about aging and retirement have been shaped by policies such as Social Security, says Meuser, as well as Medicare and defined benefit plans for retirees.
But 65 then is like 78 now, he says. In general, people are healthier, they work longer and have a higher quality of life than they did 70 years ago.
Still, many policies operate on old expectations, and the people who grew up during those times are now catching up to the current reality. That can be seen in the numbers of older workers working longer, both because they’re able and because they must.
Between 1977 and 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of people 65 and older increased 101 percent. This is despite higher rates of unemployment compared with younger workers, and for longer durations of time. In 2009, 57 percent of those aged 65 and older were working full time.
A 2010 report from BLS traces the trend of older workers working longer to the ‘90s when workers had to adjust to the loss of defined benefit plans by employers.
According to the report: “Despite the recession — or perhaps because of it — older workers continued to increase their participation in the job market, at least through mid-2009. Whether the long–term pattern of growing labor force participation rates among older workers will continue beyond the recession remains to be seen.”
And just how those older workers will make it in the future also isn’t clear. In a 5,000 person survey by the AARP, participants reported a bleak view of the future.
- 67 percent applied for Social Security earlier than they had planned.
- 33 percent chose to keep working instead of retiring.
- 37 percent had to use credit cards on a daily basis.
- 36 percent were either no longer saving for retirement, or had cut back.
- And 12.4 percent lost their health insurance.
Currently, nine out of 10 people 65 and older receive Social Security, according to the Social Security Administration, and those benefits make up 41 percent of the income of the elderly.
According to the Census, the median income of households composed of people 65 and older is $31,408.
Health and home
When Marcia Newton’s mother was 65, she retired because of glaucoma but kept active with her children, grandchildren and the community.
Now, Newton is 65. And she doesn’t feel like a senior.
“To me, a senior is my mom,” she says. “My mom’s 87.”
Newton, a Baden resident, retired in 2009. She worked in health care for 30 years and was laid off in 2007, then found work until 2009, when she officially retired. Newton completed her bachelor’s degree in 2010.
“I don’t feel like a grandparent at times,” she says. “My grandfather lived with us until he died, and I don’t see myself as being him at the same age.”
That could be, in part, thanks to her health. “People my age are a lot more active,” she says. “We’re doing things.”
When Newton first lost her job in 2007, though, she also lost her health insurance. She used the clinic at Grace Hill Health Centers, Inc., and in August, finally got Medicare.
Now, Newton says, she’s actually healthier than she was while working. She also joined her local health club recently. She was waiting to turn 65 to get her senior discount.
When Franklin McCallie retired as the principal of Kirkwood High School, he had both knees replaced and got braces.
“One of the things you do when you retire is you catch up with some things on your health,” says McCallie, a Kirkwood resident. Since retiring, he’s lost weight and is an active cyclist.
And he’s dealing with another issue that “young olds” may not have to face just yet but will eventually. Where will they live?
This summer, after 35 years in St. Louis, McCallie and his wife will move back to Chattanooga, Tenn. The neighborhood they’ve chosen is walkable, with a trolley, and they’re relocating to a place that’s reviving and in need of some elders. The couple has planned for the next phase of their lives, too, adding plans for an elevator in their new home.
McCallie, now 71, has made much of his life since retiring a decade ago, including teaching at the university level, serving on boards and spending time with his grandchildren.
Now, he and his wife are preparing for what comes next as they age into “old olds.”
Issues for each group of people 65 and older are different or the same in different ways. For “young olds” maintaining health may be a priority, as well as traveling before getting around is an issue, and making financial decisions that could impact them for several decades to come. For “older olds” and “oldest olds,” it might be finding community resources that help them stay healthy, get around and remain in their own homes.
What’s changed over the last several decades is a longer life expectancy, as well as more choices for how to live that longer life.
“There are a lot more opportunities today because of changing social attitudes about aging,” Meuser says, “opportunities to be engaged in volunteerism, including working in politics, you name it. There’s a lot more space to be engaged and to define one’s place than might have existed 50 or 100 years ago.”
Take Colin Powell, Meuser says. He’s 73.
“I don’t think of him as old. He doesn’t look old in my mind. I expect him to be engaged and if he wasn’t, it would irritate me.”
Already, Tranel says, a number of community organizations and advocacy groups work with the aging as a whole and in groups, focusing on their various needs. Changes to public policy to meet those needs, he says, are evolving because Baby Boomers are aging as a generation and not all at once. The first stepped into the “young olds” category last year, when they began turning 65. Baby boomers are considered people born between 1946 and 1964, so the youngest, at 48, still have decades to go before joining the ranks of the “young olds.”
Despite the marked differences between the groups of people 65 and older, Tranel doesn’t think public policy has quite kept up.
“In general, I think we’re certainly thinking of people 65 and over as seniors, as a block,” he says.
That could be changing, though.
“There is a recognition, not only with the resources front, but I think in the policy front, too, that aging is not a homogeneous experience,” Meuser says. “And older adults hate being lumped together as older adults.”
Forget the arm chair
Back in the Central West End, von zur Muehlen sits in a chair by the wall, remembering how she got here. She thought she might retire a few years ago before she started caring for her current client.
“But now, I’ve given up all thoughts of it,” she says.
And she’s very happy with that. Von zur Muehlen loves this work, though she knows not everyone would. And aside from her job, she keeps quite busy. She volunteers for the St. Louis Genealogical Society editing an electronic newsletter, among other jobs. She serves on the board of the German School Association of Greater St. Louis and the steering committee of the German Special Interest Group. She also takes weekly German classes.
Von zur Muehlen’s mother, who still lives by herself, is 91. She’s amazing, von zur Muehlen says, and a great example of how she hopes to age.
“In some ways, I just want to be productive. That’s my goal,” she says. “I don’t want to sit and stare out a window.”