The Measurable Health Effects of Ageism

Pexels-muskan-anand-3934328There I go again... writing about ageism!

The reason ageism is a recurrent theme with me is that ageism is a pernicious phenomenon -- a silent form of discrimination we don't expose often enough.

Ageism is typically based on unfounded beliefs and perceptions. Ageism is emotionally hurtful. And if that isn't enough, there is validated proof that ageism has a measurable impact on the health of older people.

Psychologist, epidemiologist and Yale professor Becca Levy has been studying the effects of ageism for over thirty years. In her new book, Breaking the Age Code, Levy shows how age beliefs shape all aspects of our lives. Some of Levy's research studies on the health effects of ageism were cited in a recent article in The New York Times. The specifics with regard to negative vs. positive perceptions of aging are fascinating.

For example, one study followed people for forty years. Individuals who, at young ages, had negative stereotypes about aging had twice as high a risk of suffering cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and strokes. In this same study, individuals who held negative beliefs about aging at younger ages "exhibited a sharper decline in the volume of the hippocampus, the brain region associated with memory. They also exhibited, after their deaths, more of the brain plaques and tangles that are Alzheimer’s biomarkers."

In another study, people over 70 who had "positive age beliefs" were found to be "more likely to recover fully from severe disability than those with negative beliefs."

This is striking evidence of the harmful health effects of ageism. It points out that there are real consequences of ageism that manifest themselves in symptoms and illnesses of older people.

In my view, this is not unlike the research that validates the negative health effects of race and gender discrimination. Still, it is worth noting that not everyone is of the same race, and not everyone is the same gender. However, everyone regardless of race or gender undergoes the aging process. If each of us lives long enough into our later years, by engaging in ageism, what are we really doing? It is ironically and tragically sad that discriminating against older people is basically discriminating against ourselves.

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Should You or Shouldn't You?

Pexels-andrea-piacquadio-3783348In February, I wrote a post that cited statistics regarding the high percentage of small business owners who are Boomers. "Small business" is a deceiving term because its definition varies by industry sector. In professional services, for example, "small" could be a business with just a handful of employees, while in manufacturing, "small" may be a business that has several hundred employees. The United States Census Bureau reports a statistic that may shock you: The majority of U.S. businesses have fewer than five employees.

From an entrepreneurial Boomer's perspective, "small" could mean a one-person business. At that size, such a business is likely to be in the professional services sector -- accounting, business consulting, law, marketing and so on. There are many obvious advantages to a one-person business, not the least of which is low overhead. In fact, in today's networking economy, a one-person professional services business can offer even more services to clients simply by sub-contracting other professionals. One person could also operate as an independent contractor, taking on project assignments or filling in as a contracted worker when an employer has a specialized or short-term need. This particular aspect of business is what the "gig economy" is all about.

For older Boomers who draw monthly Social Security benefits and must take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from their retirement accounts, a one-person business can be an attractive way to leverage work experience and generate modest additional income. For the most part, the primary goal of these Boomers is probably personal satisfaction rather than income generation. On the other hand, there are sure to be a substantial number of older Boomers who have no intention of "retiring" and continue to work in their own businesses, either part-time or full-time, with the goal of making some serious money. Younger Boomers not yet ready to draw retirement benefits may be even more motivated to use self-employment for financial gain.

The "X" factor, in my opinion, is how much drive you have to be your own boss. I'll use myself as an example. I owned and operated a direct marketing agency for two decades, starting out as a one-person business and growing it to more than fifty employees. After leaving that agency, I went to another advertising firm for a few years. Honestly, working for someone else was not something I enjoyed, so my next move was to operate a small business with my spouse for seven years. Then I transitioned to a part-time writing business.

Even though the size of each of my own businesses was dramatically different, I have basically been a small business owner all along. That has helped me understand what it means to be self-employed.

Should you or shouldn't you consider working independently? Obviously this is a very personal decision that involves an assessment of your own experience/capabilities as well as your income goals. But if the drive to be on your own isn't a fire in your gut and you still want to work, you might be better off pursuing a part-time or full-time position with another employer rather than working for yourself.

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How COVID-19 Intensified Ageism

Virus-g9628219e3_1920Those Boomers who have already been vaccinated and boostered are probably relieved to know that on March 29, the Food and Drug Administration authorized second booster shots for COVID-19 for everyone 50 and older. Having grown up with an understanding of how effective immunization is against such diseases as polio, Boomers are among the more accepting of vaccines.

When the pandemic first started, individuals with underlying conditions of any age, along with Americans age 65 and older, were prioritized to receive vaccinations. This was a sound decision since statistics indicated that older Americans were being infected and dying of COVID-19 at a higher rate than younger people. Most Boomers didn't hesitate to be vaccinated.

But something else happened in the early days of the pandemic: Some stories disparaging older people started circulating. The most virulent of the bunch suggested to varying degrees that COVID-19 was an "old person's disease" or, worse, that old people who got COVID-19 "deserved to die." These kinds of stories are so repugnant they don't seem worthy of mention -- but mention them I must, because they represent a disturbing, deep-rooted ageism that was intensified by the pandemic.

The National Center on Elder Abuse, in its research brief on ageism, wrote the following:

"The COVID-19 contagion has exposed and animated long simmering age prejudices within society. The pandemic unleashed discourse rife with depictions of older adults as helpless, burdensome, and expendable, provoking public dialogue about the prioritization of health care and allocation of essential resources. In addition to perpetuating negative perceptions of older adults and stoking age-based social divisions, these discussions laid bare persistent structural inequities which disproportionately inhibit older people from accessing appropriate medical treatment and employment opportunities. Among the age-based COVID impacts, older adults have faced increased medical morbidities, workplace discrimination, financial insecurity, and social isolation."

The research brief also documents the consequences of ageism. Among them are these correlations for older adults: 

  • Poorer medical and mental health outcomes
  • Employment discrimination
  • Significant monetary losses
  • Increased social isolation and loneliness
  • Environmental stressors
  • Elder abuse.

It is very likely that all of theses conditions were intensified by the existence of COVID-19.

Another aspect of ageism is equally troubling -- our self-perception of aging. This again is from the research brief issued by the National Center on Elder Abuse:

"Older adults may implicitly and unconsciously consume ageist rhetoric through their lives and internalize stereotypes, resulting in self-directed negativity and eroded self-confidence. These feelings can affect social engagement and the pursuit of employment opportunities. They may also impact elders’ perceptions of aging and their feelings about other members of their age group.

Self-perceptions of ageism can exacerbate stress, impede cognitive function, increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, lead to unhealthy behaviors, contribute to poor health outcomes, and incite brain changes in later life."

I've written extensively about ageism in advertising and the workplace. Never has ageism been so blatant as during the pandemic. The ageism exhibited in the media's reporting of anti-elderly sentiment is just the bubbling up of something we all face in society on a daily basis.

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, "Ageism is one of the most prevalent, least recognized, and tacitly normalized forms of stereotyping and prejudice within society. Every person who grows old is likely to be the target of ageism at some point in their life."

Boomers who are pummeled by anti-aging messages need to stay strong and maintain their self-respect. There is nothing "wrong" with growing old -- it's a natural occurrence that happens to all of us. What's wrong is the attitude of those around us and, in some cases, our own self-perception about aging.

It took a pandemic to lay bare the ugly truth about ageism in America and, in fact, globally. All of us need to remain vigilant and fight against ageism if we are to live in a world that rejects discrimination of any kind.

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What Boomers Can Do to Help Fight the Climate Crisis

Thermometer-g8f45947a1_1920The most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released on February 28, 2022, stated, "Human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world, despite efforts to reduce the risks. People and ecosystems least able to cope are being hardest hit." That's about as grim as it gets.

Arguably, Boomers were at least in part responsible for helping to create the climate crisis, so what can we do to help fight it? We can take a lesson from young people who are rising up around the world to become climate activists, for one thing. There are personal actions we can all take that can make a difference. If enough of us take even a few small actions, it all adds up. For example, Steve Vernon, writing for Forbes, has three good suggestions:

  1. "Eat less meat. The meat industry produces large quantities of greenhouse gases, consumes huge amounts of water, and releases many toxins into the environment. You don’t have to become vegetarian or vegan to help–just cut back on your meat consumption by serving smaller portions of meat and compensating with more vegetables and fruits."
  2. "Drive less, and walk, bike, or use public transportation more. Explore how you can go about your daily errands by walking, biking, or using public transportation."
  3. "Right-size and climatize your home. That three- and four- bedroom home in the suburbs with a lawn may have been a good place to raise your family or commute into the city from, but it might not be the best choice for your retirement lifestyle. Try looking for a smaller place that uses less energy, is easier to maintain, offers lower property taxes and homeowner insurance rates, and enables you to walk or bike to most of your activities."

If you'd like to do more as part of a larger effort, consider the following initiatives:

  • Join Elders Climate Action's "Local Action Teams" to get resources, networking opportunities and more on a local level.
  • Join the nonpartisan Citizens Climate Lobby to advocate for positive climate work by lobbying the government.
  • Join Third Act's "Bug the Banks" movement to tell banks to stop funding fossil fuel companies.

These are just a few examples. An internet search will reveal plenty more. You may remember the bumper sticker that was popular during our youth, "Think Global, Act Local." There is no better time to take that to heart. Consider the health of the entire planet, and act locally in your own neighborhood, town, county and state to take action for positive change. Mother Earth will thank you for it -- and it just might make her a better place to live for our grandchildren.

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When Your Aging Parents Need Different Accommodations

Guest Post by Millie Jones

Older-couple-g4689f619f_1920As the years go on, you might realize that one of your parents has vastly different care needs than the other. For adult children of aging parents, this might mean stepping in to help your parent move into a nursing home while your other parent downsizes. The following tips demonstrate how to balance your parents’ needs as you sort out their living situations.

  1. Consider Selling the Family Home

 If one of your parents needs nursing home care, and the other is open to moving somewhere new in order to downsize, it’s probably the right time to sell the family home. Your parents may be able to use the money from this sale to cover the costs of a nursing home. To navigate this process, you’ll need to start by accurately calculating your parents’ assets. By subtracting the amount currently owed on their mortgage from the market value of their home, you’ll be able to determine their home equity.

  1. Other Payment Methods

What if the profits from your parents’ home sale won’t fully account for the costs of a nursing home? You and your parents will need to consider other options. According to Paying for Senior Care, if paying out of pocket isn’t an option, some seniors use Medicaid, veteran’s benefits, or long-term care insurance instead. Your parents might need guidance when it comes to funding nursing home expenses. You may want to gift them a session or two with a financial advisor who can review their portfolio and help them make the right decision.

  1. Choose the Right Nursing Home

 Take your time while reviewing different nursing homes in your area. After all, you need to make sure that your parent will be getting the best care possible. Ideally, you’ll want to choose somewhere local so that their spouse can visit regularly. You will have to tour any potential nursing homes in person, ask for their certifying agency reports, and talk to their staff about how they develop care plans. Also review objective state ratings if available.

  1. Downsizing Options

You’ve helped one of your parents find a comfortable nursing home where they can get the care they need - but where should your other parent live? It’s a good idea to explore their downsizing options early on so that they have plenty of time to weigh their potential choices. Check out the Senior Homes “downsizing guide” to learn more about things to consider as your parent moves into a smaller home or a retirement community. If you have a good relationship, perhaps welcoming your parent to live with you is another possibility.

  1. Be Patient

If you’re supporting your parents throughout this process, you might feel overwhelmed and exhausted at times. This is especially true if you’re stepping into a part-time caregiver role until you find the right nursing home for your parent. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from other family members. And remember, it’s okay to feel frustrated occasionally, especially if you’re worried about your parents’ health. Make some time for yourself when possible; simply taking a half-hour to read or do gentle yoga when you’re stressed can help you release these emotions.

When one parent needs to move into a nursing home while the other is healthy enough to live independently, it can put a strain on your family. By carefully going over all of your parents’ options for accommodations, you can ensure they will both be comfortable. With the suggestions provided, you can help your parents make the right choices for their safety and wellbeing.

Millie Jones is excited to share SeniorWellness with other older adults to help them embrace wellness and live life to the fullest. Ms. Jones enjoys doting on her grandchildren, writing and photography.

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Are You Doing the Math?

Calculation-g7af13b738_1920Boomers may have learned mathematics in school, but as we age, some of us may be forgetting the basics. Here are several retirement statistics from you may find unsettling if not downright startling:

  • 48% of workers believe they don't make enough money to adequately save for retirement
  • 43% of workers guess how much they need to retire, rather than base it on current expenses
  • 33% of women have no retirement strategy
  • 22% of all Americans have less than $5,000 saved for retirement; 15% have no retirement savings at all
  • Only 56% of workers were enrolled in a workplace retirement plan in 2021
  • 73% of non-retirees are worried they won't receive any Social Security benefits by the time they retire.

These statistics suggest that some Boomers are financially unprepared for retirement. As we have progressed in life, other pressing financial needs (buying a home, paying for a child's higher education, supporting other family members, etc.) may have taken priority over funding our retirement. With so many Boomers reaching retirement age, however, we are being faced with a difficult challenge: Will we outlive our money?

It's a legitimate concern with life expectancy for most Boomers beyond the traditional 65-year old retirement age. Our parents may have been fortunate enough to work for companies, schools systems or governments that provided valuable retirement income via pensions, but pensions today are virtually non-existent. Company 401k and personal IRAs have replaced pensions as the only non-Social Security retirement income available to most people.

As a result, today the burden of saving for retirement has shifted entirely to individuals. We can legitimately assume that Social Security alone will not be adequate to fund a comfortable lifestyle during our golden years. This is one major reason that 55% of workers plan to work in retirement. Some Boomers are likely to work in one way or another well into their later years.

In a post on the Life After Work Zone blog, Brian Feutz cites additional key statistics from the Federal Reserve about assets, income and debt among retirement households. Feutz also shares some fundamental tips, including:

  • Save aggressively and spend wisely
  • Keep your debt to a minimum and keep paying it off
  • Maximize your savings and income everywhere you can.

Inevitably, many Boomers will see their working income decline or disappear in later years. If they don't have adequate retirement savings, their future could be in jeopardy. They'll need to draw on those retirement savings, in combination with Social Security payments, to live comfortably. At the same time, they'll have to manage expenses to live within their means. 

A financial adviser can certainly help us with investments, but ultimately, it's up to all of us to take personal responsibility for tracking income and expenses -- budgeting so that we don't outlive our assets. It basically comes down to making sure we're doing the math.

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The Big Disconnect

Signs-g25410ada2_1920In my previous post, I wrote about the fact that a growing percentage of Boomers seemed to be retiring from the workforce while, at the same time, there was a significant increase in Boomers working for themselves. I drew the conclusion that many Boomers may be looking at work differently, redefining what we think of as work. Some of them may be opting out of a traditional full-time job working for someone else in favor of full- or part-time self-employment.

Lurking behind this conclusion, however, is a stark reality that many Boomers may be pursuing non-traditional work because they have no choice. The fact is there is a problem of perception in the workplace, both in the United States and elsewhere. It centers around another topic I've addressed frequently: Ageism.

In "Older Workers to the Rescue? Why Boomers May be the Answer to the Big Quit," an article recently published by Newsweek, Bradley Schurman confirms my belief about Boomer gig work by citing statistics from the Pew Research Center: "...20 percent of gig workers in the U.S.—from freelance consultants to Uber drivers—are over the age of 50, and nearly a third of those are over the age of 65."

Schurman notes that in the post-World War II American workplace of 1950, "nearly one out of two men over the age of 65 were in the formal labor market." He asks whether employers will take advantage of the huge over-65 labor pool available to them today, but he writes, "Nothing will change, though, unless employers abandon hiring and firing practices that favor the young." He goes on to say, "Hiring managers, in particular, must remove coded language like 'recent college graduate,' as well as the requisite number of years of experience from job postings. They also need to get out of the rut of assuming that an older worker is 'overqualified,' technologically illiterate or only going to stick around for a few years."

On the positive side, Schurman suggests that a major demographic shift could affect how employers view older workers: "The labor force participation rate for people over the age of 75 is expected to grow by nearly 100 percent by 2030, according to the BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics]. In contrast, the total workforce will only expand by about 5 percent, and the 16-24 age group will likely decline, thanks to decades of contracting birth rates."

Perhaps this shift will, as Schurman surmises, finally force employers to recognize the value of hiring Boomer employees instead of viewing them as obsolete workers. With millions of jobs to fill, it's only a matter of time before employers realize millions of qualified Boomers are ready, able and willing to work. Until then, however, there will continue to be a big disconnect between the age-discrimination hiring practices of most employers and the availability of capable, experienced job-seeking Boomers.

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"Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off to Work We Go" -- or Is It?

The_Seven_Dwarfs_DisneyAs of the third quarter of 2021, 50.3% of U.S. adults 55 and older said they were out of the labor force due to retirement, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the most recent official labor force data. In the third quarter of 2019, before the onset of the pandemic, 48.1% of those adults were retired. In regard to specific age groups, in the third quarter of 2021 66.9% of 65- to 74-year-olds were retired, compared with 64.0% in the same quarter of 2019.

The data regarding entrepreneurs tell a different story, however. According to the Kauffman Foundation, the trend in the age of entrepreneurs over the past twenty-five years represents a substantial shift towards more participation of older entrepreneurs: In 1996, 14.8% of entrepreneurs were 55-64 years old and by 2020, 24.5% were 55-64 years old. An article in NextAvenue indicates that Guidant Financial and the Small Business Trends Alliance, in its 2021 Small Business Trends (a survey of over 2,400 current and aspiring small business owners nationwide), report that Boomers account for 41% of small business owners (currently between ages 57 and 75) and Generation X for 46% (41 to 56 years old).

Looking at these data together, one might conclude that a significant portion of the Boomer generation is leaving the traditional workforce -- that is, working for someone else -- and possibly entering the self-employed workplace. Today, self-employment could be defined in a number of different ways. It could be starting a full-time business or a part-time business. It could also be setting up a freelance business in which an individual works on a project or hourly basis. So many of these "gig" businesses fly under the statistical radar that it might be difficult to even know how many older adults are involved in such enterprises.

It may look like the majority of Boomers are retiring, but how many of them are instead just changing the way they look at work? Perhaps a number of them are now viewing work as optional rather than mandatory. Those Boomers who retire from the traditional workforce may be figuring out how to combine part-time work with volunteering and leisure time. They could be drawing Social Security and taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from retirement funds to live on and working part-time more for satisfaction than for income. If this is the case, as I suspect it is, then many Boomers have indeed fundamentally changed the very nature of retirement. They're going off to work... but in a whole new way.

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"Rewiring" with Purpose

Austin-chan-ukzHlkoz1IE-unsplashSince I began writing this blog almost seven years ago, I've promoted the idea of rewiring instead of retiring. To me, "rewiring" means approaching our second act in life as an opportunity to refresh our perspective. It means recognizing how to pursue another path while leveraging the talents we have and the experience we've gained in our first act.

The typical Boomer has spent his or her adult life working. The most fortunate of us found jobs which turned into careers or professions. Perhaps we have been rewarded financially. Hopefully, we've gained satisfaction for a job well done. Even better, we've achieved a sense of purpose.

So how do we meet the fundamental challenge of rewiring with purpose? I'm certainly not the first to address this question.

Books have been written on this very subject, such as Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old?: The Path of Purposeful Aging by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro, published last year. In an interview with Nancy Collamer for NextAvenue, Leider said purpose "is the answer to the question, 'Why do you get up in the morning?' ... Everyone has a purpose, but it rarely just reveals itself. You have to make a choice to discover your purpose, be curious and make connections with others. It's an iterative process that unfolds over time and changes with age, so it's important to reassess your purpose on a regular basis."

Leider adds, "If you are going to continue to grow as you age, you need to reexamine your gifts. Ask yourself: What do I really love to do? What do I want my legacy to be? Then, think about how you can best use those gifts to solve a pressing problem, help someone out or make a contribution to others. When you do that, you'll place yourself along the path to purposeful aging."

Investment adviser Brian Skrobonja, writing for Kiplinger, shares similar advice about purpose in the form of three specific action steps:

Action #1: Reinvent Yourself
"The transition of retirement is not the destination; it is the transition to what is next.  It is your opportunity to reinvent yourself and live out the second half of your life with purpose."

Action #2: Reframe Your Mindset About Money
"The measurement for your success should be on how much income you can generate from your assets that is consistent and predictable. It’s income from your assets that grants you freedom of money and time so you can dedicate your talents to pursue your purpose."

Action #3: Reframe Your Mindset of Time
"You have a choice: You can live as if you have been set out to pasture to retire or you can live as if you are just entering your second half of your life. Your future reality is created in your mind, and whatever you focus on expands."

Of course, there is no magic formula for discovering your post-career purpose. It is highly personal and individualized. For some, it could be new found activism inspired by past activism; this is what Third Act founder Bill McKibben exhorts us to do.

Discovering your purpose may take some time -- and it is likely to be an ongoing process. That isn't a bad thing: It's just the nature of rewiring, instead of retiring.

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How Realistic is an Intergenerational America?

Jana-sabeth-snDUMdYF7o8-unsplashThink for a moment about the typical Boomer childhood. We Boomers probably grew up in neighborhoods where we got to know not just our friends, but our friends' parents, uncles, aunts and even grandparents. In our own families, it wasn't unusual to have older generations living close by or even in the same household. As a toddler, I regularly interacted with my grandparents and other older relatives. 

Today things are very different. Instead of experiencing this close-knit intergenerational bonding, modern families are typically spread out across cities or regions. Even though people are living longer, young children don't seem to be intimately involved with the elderly nearly as much as in previous times. As a result, these kids may not be growing up with an understanding or empathy for older generations.

A series of essays in the Stanford Social Innovation Review has explored this issue in detail; I've written about a number of intergenerational programs mentioned in those essays that show promise. In the final essay in the series, "Rebuilding an Age-Integrated Society," Marci Alboher and Eunice Lin Nichols write, "Today, most younger people are in school, middle-age people are at work, and older people are in age-restricted communities; their lives rarely intersect. This restructuring has left the country ill-prepared for a world with more Americans living longer lives and more generations living at the same time."

Alboher and Nichols have identified four necessary ingredients to help renew the notion of an intergenerational America:

  1. A new mindset
    The authors write that "Individuals and organizations can begin to make an intergenerational shift by committing to a new mindset—an asset-based lens that combats ageism and leverages the complementary aspirations, gifts, and contributions of old and young."
  2. More money
    Funding for intergenerational programs, whether it is from government or philanthropic organizations, is urgently needed.
  3. A supportive policy environment
    For intergenerational programs to be sustainable, "policies that incentivize intergenerational connection" are required.
  4. A research agenda
    The authors indicate that "Innovators piloting new intergenerational models need research that can drive improvements in practice, and help make the case for expansion and investment."

Alboher and Nichols point out that a model for intergenerational society already exists "in many Indigenous cultures, immigrant communities, and communities of color..." and they suggest we must learn from them:

"We must learn from proven intergenerational traditions and practices, and remix them for modern times, creating a vibrant new social contract that reflects the multigenerational and multicultural reality that is already reshaping the American landscape, and that will be a hallmark of the 21st century."

If we can meet the challenge of age segregation and recreate the age-integrated society of the past, it could have a lasting, beneficial impact on all of us.

Note: Please see the comment below from one of our readers who asks some intriguing questions!

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