Who Are Today's Older Americans?

Understanding Today's Older Americans
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Americans over 65 today make up a widely diverse group, from those who spent their childhoods listening to Franklin Roosevelt's Fireside Chats to those who define themselves by when they first heard Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones. It's no wonder the over-65 population encompasses a wide range of ages and tastes -- we're talking about 40 million people 65 and over, as of 2011. And now that the population swell of the baby boomers is reaching retirement age, the number of Americans over 65 is growing rapidly; by 2030, the number of Americans 65 and older will reach 72 million -- at which point those over 65 will represent close to 20 percent of the entire U.S. population.

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There's no question that Americans over 65 today are more racially diverse, better educated, and better off than any generation that came before. According to the Administration on Aging, more than one in five Americans over 65 identifies themselves as belonging to a racial or ethnic minority. As of a few years ago, 80 percent of older Americans had graduated from high school and almost a quarter had a four-year college degree, according to the most recent government report, Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well-Being. In 1965, for comparison, more than 75 percent of Americans never finished high school and only 5 percent had college degrees. Today's older Americans are also less likely to be married than previous generations; 45 percent of older women and 71 percent of older men report living with a spouse. And more are city- than country-dwellers; more than 80 percent of older Americans live in a major metropolitan area.

Older Americans: Defined by History

If you turned 65 in the past few years, your school years were spent participating in air raid drills during the Cold War. You danced your way through sock hops in high school and reached adulthood during the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. But go back another decade, and it was a very different America you grew up in. You may have watched your family lose everything in the Great Depression or migrate west to escape the Dust Bowl, but you also settled into adulthood in the safe, secure, and staid 1950s, when the economy was stronger and social norms were fairly stable.

American society has gone through enormous upheavals over the past century, and certain key events may define how older Americans see themselves and those around them. Black Americans who are in their 80s and 90s today lived under the segregation of Jim Crow laws -- at least in most parts of the U.S. -- until they were in their 30s or 40s, while those in their mid-60s saw the reforms of the Civil Rights movement implemented while they were still in high school. Japanese Americans over the age of 75 vividly remember their families and friends being detained in relocation camps, and some spent years of their childhoods in these camps. From the early 1920s through the 1940s, Chinese and other Asians were barred from immigrating to the United States and weren't allowed citizenship or naturalization. Nor were they permitted to marry whites. So Chinese-Americans who grew up during these years had a very different experience than those whose childhoods took place in a more accepting climate.

But it's also important to remember that our year of birth doesn't necessarily define us. George Bush Senior and Jimmy Carter were both born in 1924, living through the Great Depression, the reforms of the New Deal, and World War II before they were much older than 20. Yet they wound up with very different visions of American society and values.

And age in years doesn't necessarily correspond to how "young" or "old" someone seems, which is often more a product of how flexible we are in adjusting and adapting to our rapidly changing society. Consider this: Former Vice President Dick Cheney was born in 1941, while musician Willie Nelson was born eight years earlier, in 1933. Yet which man seems more "modern" in his approach to life?

As they've changed so many other things, the baby boomers are changing how we view aging as well. Look down a list of celebrities currently in their late 60s and 70s and you're in for some surprises. Susan Sarandon and Cher probably don't fit your stereotypical image of a grandmother, and it's not easy to remember that Mick Jagger, Harrison Ford, and Bob Dylan are all in their 70s.

Older Americans Living Longer, Struggling With Health Problems

Of course, most older Americans don't look like Susan Sarandon or jump off buildings like Harrison Ford. But overall, the health of older Americans is pretty good. According to the Administration on Aging, 42 percent of those over 65 described themselves as being in "excellent" or "very good" health.

Most older Americans do, however, struggle with at least one health issue, and a Medicare analysis by the AARP Public Policy Institute found that nearly half of Medicare recipients suffer from three or more chronic conditions. The most common diagnosed condition is arthritis, which afflicts half of all those 65 and older; 30 percent have some type of heart disease, 24 percent have battled some type of cancer, and a whopping 72 percent have high blood pressure.

But these kinds of health issues are the price we pay for the best news of all, which is that Americans are living longer than ever before, thanks to our ability to cure or control many serious health conditions. Death rates from heart disease and stroke, for example, have declined almost 50 percent since 1981. A woman turning 60 today can expect to live to about age 84, and a man to about age 81, and in 2012 there were 61,985 Americans over the age of 100.

Frustratingly, older Americans are not doing all they can to keep themselves healthy as they age. According to the 2012 report, only 11 percent of those over 65 said they exercised regularly, and 38 percent are obese, up from 22 percent in 1988.

How Are Older Americans Set Financially?

While many of us dream of retirements spent traveling, golfing, and enjoying our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many older Americans struggle on low fixed incomes that don't allow a lot of unnecessary spending. Administration on Aging statistics show that close to 10 percent of older Americans were below the poverty level in 2012, and another 5 percent were just above it. And according to a report by the AARP Public Policy Institute on Americans receiving Medicare, half have incomes less than twice the federal poverty level and more than one in four Americans have less than $10,000 in total savings.

The flip side of this, of course is that the majority of Americans are relatively secure financially, and surveys by MetLife show that older Americans are more likely to plan ahead for their financial future than previous generations. It's more common than ever before for Americans to work well into their 70s, and one survey found that 82 percent of those retiring say they plan take on part-time work even after they've officially left their jobs.

With finances in mind, many older Americans envision moving in their later years, usually to an area with a lower cost of living. However, statistics from the U.S. Administration on Aging show that only 4 percent of older adults actually move in any given year, as compared with 13 percent of the general population. Older Americans are deeply rooted and prize remaining close to family and friends. Records show that when they do move, 57 percent of older Americans stay in the same county and 81 percent stay in the same state.

Healthcare costs play a growing role in our finances the longer we live; according to the AARP, Americans ages 65-70 spent 11 percent of their income on healthcare, while those 85 and older spent 28 percent of their income on health expenses.

With longer "retirements" ahead of them than previous generations, those currently aging into their late 60s and 70s are becoming more financially savvy, surveys show, with women in particular stepping up to take a more active role in managing their financial futures.

Most important, though, is that those aging into their late 60s and 70s make it clear that they have no intention of accepting the traditional limitations imposed by age. Rather, they say, they expect to stay active, engaged, and involved in their communities and to redefine what aging in America means today.

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Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio