90 Plus: Aging in the Future

By Ron Steinman

Everyone knows the population in the United States is growing. Because of advances in medicine there are more people over sixty-five alive today than at any time in our history. But there is more to this than most realize. Be aware, change is fast coming to the geriatric population, and thus to every one of us.

You may wonder what is going on, take a breath and allow me a minute to tell you. Some think that the Census Bureau only amasses numbers when it counts everything it can about American society. Instead of letting those statistic lie fallow, when done, experts turn them into useful numbers on which to understand our present and to help us see into the future. One of those reports by the Census Bureau called  90 plus in the United States  2006-2008 will surely make life for many of our legislators and politicians, whether nationally or at the state level, very difficult over the next forty years.  The number of people 90 and over tripled over the last 3 decades, reaching almost 2 million. Today, those 90 and over comprise 4.7 percent of those 65 and older.

Eight-eight percent are white. Eighty percent of the women are widows. Forty percent are married men. Over the next four decades, this part of the population might more than quadruple. By 2050, the 90 plus age group could be as high as 10 percent of America’s older population, meaning those older than 65 years. That is a significant number. With many of the women widows, more women than men will be alive. Strikingly, many more of the men and women in that age group will be living in poverty than the general population. In no surprise, the oldest men and women will have higher disabilities. That is inevitable as people age. These people will live in nursing homes or alone. Some may be fortunate to live out their days with family. Interestingly, today 99.5 percent of the 90 and over population have health insurance. Under Republicans, I fear that percentage will surely decrease dramatically. The concern is that in time people who are that old may overwhelm us with their growing numbers. Be warned. 

Where will the needed money come from to support this population? Right-wing fiscal forces are mounting attacks against all government supported health care as the federal government and the states wrestle with how they might best handle what many call entitlements, but what people who have been paying into the system all their lives only expect. They are not entitlements. They are due bills. It is worth repeating that Republicans in general and those Republicans specifically running for president all want to change Social Security, some by creating personal accounts through private insurance or even with accounts tied to the stock market. Imagine where those schemes would have left people today if they ever had become law. Many Republicans also want to revamp Medicaid by giving what they call block grants to the states. The question is who will monitor those grants to make sure the states use the money properly. All this brings me to more about the growing 90-plus generation.

Those on the far right such as the Tea Party and the libertarians, and worse, the centrist so-called compassionate conservatives, know they will have to devise ways either to curtail the growth in numbers of those 90 and over now, or stop in their tracks those on the verge of becoming 90. Whatever those on the right choose to do will have serious consequences for everyone, not only the aged. The Republican mantra is that every man, and woman, must fend for him or herself. If people cannot, the consequences will be dire. Most of the time when people reach beyond the traditional retirement age of say, 65, only a few are fortunate to have the means to take care of themselves without help from the federal government, especially today with state and private pensions often reduced or dropped. If people cannot have Social Security, and that includes most of American society, they face a very dark future. The odds are that their final years will be tragic. And the tragedy will manifest itself not only to the elderly, but family members who care for them and professional caretakers as well.

The information in the Census report will test the humanity of all conservatives. As you can see, I am less worried about the humanity of Democrats and liberals. Traditionally, they have bigger hearts. How each acts and how each proposes to handle the needs of the elderly in the future will reveal how those politicians feel about an increasingly aging population growing bigger all the time, and that is not going away.  Unless attitudes change and we learn to treat this coming crisis of old age, I fear the worse will happen to our sisters and brothers as they inextricably advance into the unknown years of 90 plus. There is no doubt that caring for the elderly will put a strain on how the federal and state governments function. Money to govern will always be in short supply. We really have no choice but to do what is right for those who manage to live long in our society.

There was a time a few years ago, when people who could not care for the elderly in their families, took their wheel-chair bound relatives and quietly deposited them at malls or on the sides of highways where they might die out of sight and out of mind, at best dumping them on society in general in the hopes that someone else would care for them. The tactic failed. But the scandal lives on. If we do not properly care for those who have long life, will that type of tactic again rear its ugly head? Only time will tell. 

Editor’s Note: All photographs by Neil Moralee.  Ron Steinman is executive editor and a columnist for online magazines, The Digital Journalist and The Digital Filmmaker. An award-winning producer for NBC News and NBC’s Today Show, he served as bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War, and later as bureau chief in Hong Kong and London. At ABC News Productions, he produced documentaries for A&E, TLC, The History Channel, and Discovery. He is currently an independent documentary producer, director and writer through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. He is the author of seven books, including “Inside Television’s First War: A Saigon Journal,” that details how NBC News covered the war in Vietnam.

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