Is getting old now the same as it was a generation ago? As I see it, things have changed. Shifts in demographics, health trends, expanding residential options, and new forms of support are transforming the aging experience for everyone.
Demographics are changing.
Thanks to the Baby Boom, not only are there more people over age 65, the over-90 segment is also growing. From 720,000 in the year 1980 to more than 1.9 million in 2010, the number of Americans who are 90 years of age or older has nearly tripled, the Census Bureau reported after the 2010 census. When the 2020 census results come out later this year, I expect the numbers to be even higher, and the experts agree. Over the next four decades, the number of people aged 90 and older is projected to more than quadruple. They now comprise 4.7 percent of the older population (age 65 and older), as compared with only 2.8 percent in 1980. By 2050, this share is likely to reach 10 percent.
People are (generally) staying healthier longer.
Despite growing concerns about chronic conditions, older people in general are healthier than ever. A 2013 Danish research study suggests that longevity can follow two different paths. People might survive longer because they are healthier, and therefore may not experience much disability as they age, or more individuals may live longer with serious illnesses or disability but receive support from extensive medical interventions. Recent data suggests that the oldest old — centenarians in particular — may enjoy better health than people in their 70s or 80s. Some studies have also found that cognitive scores among the elderly have risen, which may reflect growing levels of physical and mental activity, both of which have been linked to better mental function, among today’s elderly populations.
Older adults have more living options.
In 1994, 1.74 million older adults were living in nursing homes. By 2004, the number had fallen to 1.32 million—a 25 percent reduction—and the number continues to decline. How can this be when the number of seniors is growing? Ten years ago, older adults had basically two living options: a private residence, either their own home or the home of relatives, or the nursing home. Today, many people who would have ended up in nursing homes in the past are being diverted to assisted living facilities, continuing care retirement centers, and other care settings. Though the nursing home population is decreasing, the total number of seniors in long-term care facilities is not.
Families can get help.
In the past, there has been virtually no guidance for people during the long-term care journey. Caring for elders has long been considered a private matter. It was the family’s responsibility to meet all the older person’s needs until the end of his or her life. The only instruction available was observation—watching how previous generations handled care responsibilities. As a result, family caregivers cobbled together solutions, lurching from one crisis to the next and often sacrificing their own well-being in the process. Things started to change in the 1990s when new businesses catering to the needs of older adults and their caregivers began to emerge. Today, families can choose from a wide variety of services that weren’t available a generation ago.
Will your aging experience be better than that of your ancestors? Though I can’t know for sure, my hunch is that it will be. At Truhlsen Elder Care Law of Nebraska, we specialize in guiding families through the elder care maze. If you’re caring for an elderly loved one and you’re feeling overwhelmed, we can make the journey much easier. Just give us a call.