The Graying of Baby Boomers; Some Challenges of Ageing in the 21st Century

I found myself thinking about aging and the issues facing us as the percentage of our population becomes older every year.  It was a sudden jolt when it came to me that the subject not only concerns me but that it is about me.  I am a member of the generation of people born between 1946 -1964 called The Baby Boomers.

World War Two ended and, as the soldiers and sailors came home to start a new life, we showed up in droves.  The 1968 cult movie “Wild in the Streets” boasted our political strength and societal influence in a song called “52 percent” claiming we were a majority of the world’s population.  Now we are reaching 65 at a rate of 10,000 every day.This statistic is important because as more and more boomers are reaching ‘senior status’ significant challenges face us all. Among them are economic hardships, an overly burdened healthcare system and an alarming rise in elder abuse. But this graying of my generation does not have to be a shipwreck. We all have a role in accepting and embracing a demographic shift that has potential to provide wisdom, perspective and humor to a culture that is moving too fast and which might take itself a little too seriously.

“I knew if I waited around long enough something like this would happen.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

Let me add a personal reflection before launching any further into my curated column subject matter.  I have become a student of ageing by receiving on-the-job training.  One of the things I have learned is that Bernard Shaw's famous line alleged to be a musing about death is not inscribed on a tombstone because he was cremated and scattered in his garden around a statue of St. Joan. So, I have adopted it to increase my sense of humor about getting old.  It happens if you hang around long enough.  Body parts are not going to work the way they did ten years ago...or perhaps not even as well as they did yesterday. Getting up off the floor after playing with my dog, Wrigley, has some of the same challenges that running wind sprints had when I was in high school. The mind, who still thinks I'm 20, plays funny little games with me.  One of its' favorite tricks is to erase any memory of why I walked into a room just as I arrive.Simple is not always simple any more when you reach these golden years.  But, beyond the fact that humor is a necessity in accepting and embracing older age, I have discovered that life has a symmetry.Nothing happened by mistake.  Every moment, each event, all of the celebrations and tragedies led me to this moment.  And so, life is sacred.  This is what we are called to impart to the younger ones and to each other.  Chaplains, pastors, counselors and health care providers especially have this important message to pass on. So I will say it one more time...with gusto; Life is sacred.

The Facts and Figures to Absorb As So Much of Society Gets Old

Perhaps the most definitive information was provided to us in a report by the World Health Organization in 2015.  It stated that:

“With advances in medicine helping more people to live longer lives, the number of people over the age of 60 is expected to double by 2050 and will require radical societal change – rising from 900 million in 2015 to 2 billion by 2050…governments must ensure policies that enable older people to continue participating in society and that avoid reinforcing the inequities that often underpin poor health in older age.”

The Census Bureau issued a similar study in 2014 with sobering charts and graphs which indicate far reaching changes is the makeup of our national mix.  And the process is speeding up. They report that declines in fertility and mortality rates are hastening the shift, leading to what are expected to be profound changes for issues ranging from Social Security and health care to education. So there you have it. We won’t be able to discount, delay, deny, and wiggle out of this…or to call it ‘fake news’.  As they say in 12 Step Recovery Groups; “Denial works until it doesn’t.”

We Will Need to Redesign Healthcare and Senior Services

Although an aging population undoubtedly places pressure on policymakers as they seek to stem rising health care costs, insufficient attention has been focused on new approaches designed to improve community-based services, quality of life, and mobility across the life course. Forbes recently called the problems facing our changing demographics as a “defining issue of our time.”As the number of older adults continues to grow, public health professionals will have to find innovative ways to meet the multiple needs of this population, as well as to address the shortage of professionals trained in aging and to help relieve the often overwhelming demands placed on caregivers and family members.Things are starting to happen which make me think solutions will ultimately abound.  Sweden is among the nations that are rising up to meet the short and long term needs of senior citizens.  Public and private sectors are cooperating in an effort to provide housing, quality medical treatment, professional geriatric training, transportation services for its’ graying population.  They are providing an excellent template for the rest of the world. Companies like Google have started to tackle the issues surrounding this.

In 2013 it launched Calico, a new company focused on health and well-being. Chief Executive Larry Page said that Calico will attempt to tackle the universal challenge of aging and related diseases. He went on to declare that; "These issues affect us all -- from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families. And while this is clearly a longer-term bet, we believe we can make good progress within reasonable time scales with the right goals and the right people." There is always hope when we make a decision to do the right thing. Our policymakers must join the effort before it becomes another fire to put out.

Elder Abuse; A Horrible Symptom Growing in Proportion to Global Graying

It is heartbreaking to see a once active, vibrant, person fall victim to an abuser or abusers when ageing robs them of independence.  I’ve seen my share of it over the years.  Every once in a while the problem hits the headlines.  High-profile elder abuse cases, like that of Mickey RooneyCasey Kasem, and Brooke Astor, show families fighting for money and power while a formerly adoring public remained clueless. Mickey Rooney was actually denied necessities like food and water while his stepchildren drained his bank account. Abuse can happen to any older person but is most frequently reported as occurring with those who are frail and mentally compromised. The rich are not immune.Perhaps there was a kind of global awakening to the enormous crisis of elder abuse when The United Nations General Assembly designated June 15th as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. This is to be one day in the year when the whole world voices its opposition to the abuse and suffering inflicted to some of our older generations.  It’s about time!It is incumbent upon Chaplains, Social Workers, Healthcare Providers and other professionals to be attentive and to take action. The World Health Organization tells us that 1 in 6 seniors are victims of various kinds of abuse which include;

  • Physical abuse happens when someone causes bodily harm by hitting, pushing, or slapping.

  • Emotional/Psychological abuse, can include a caregiver saying hurtful words, yelling, threatening, or repeatedly ignoring the older person. Keeping that person from seeing close friends and relatives is another form of emotional abuse.

  • Financial abuse, happens when money or belongings are stolen. It can include forging checks, taking someone else's retirement and Social Security benefits, or using another person's credit cards and bank accounts. It also includes changing names on a will, bank account, life insurance policy, or title to a house without permission from the older person.

  • Neglect occurs when the caregiver does not try to respond to the older person's needs.

  • Abandonment is leaving a senior alone without planning for his or her care.

  • Sexual abuse involves a caregiver forcing an older adult to watch or be part of sexual acts.

  • Healthcare fraud can be committed by doctors, hospital staff, and other healthcare workers. It includes overcharging, billing twice for the same service, falsifying Medicaid or Medicare claims, or charging for care that wasn't provided.

What are the warning signs of elder abuse?

  • Has trouble sleeping

  • Seems depressed or confused

  • Loses weight for no reason

  • Displays signs of trauma, like rocking back and forth

  • Acts agitated or violent

  • Becomes withdrawn

  • Stops taking part in activities he or she enjoys

  • Has unexplained bruises, burns, or scars

  • Looks messy, with unwashed hair or dirty clothes

  • Develops bed sores or other preventable conditions

  • Unexplained, strained or tense relationships; frequent arguments between the caregiver and older adult.

  • Sudden changes in financial situations. This abuse costs older Americans $36.5 billion per year.

One more appalling fact…elders who have been abused have a 300% higher risk of death when compared to those who have not been mistreated.I have been a caregiver and it isn’t easy.  When I began researching the topic of the graying of my generation as it concerns elder abuse, I began to feel guilty.  Had I abused my mother or my wife when I was trying to be a good son/husband?  My irresponsible handling of my mother’s assets during her terminal illness caused her to suffer.  My denial of my wife’s inability to do some things during her rehabilitation process probably caused her to feel isolated and misunderstood.  None of this was premeditated or intentional.  I was trying to do my best.  But caring for a loved one involves many stressors which can be damaging to both parties since it is usually a long term challenge. There is a good quiz to measure the level of your caregiver stress.  It has proven to be a big help to many people.I found that it is crucial to ask for and get help.  No matter how stressful your caregiving responsibilities or how bleak your situation seems, there are plenty of things you can do to ease your stress levels, regain your balance, and start to feel positive and hopeful again. The alternative could be to hit a breaking point and fall into abusive behaviors with a loved one.

What the Elderly Have To Offer'

What a waste it would be to allow the elders to become, as David Zahl worries, “The Last, the Least, the Lost, the Little and the Old.” There is so much wisdom to be tapped and so many dusty diamonds to be brushed off.  Boomers are pessimistic about being honored by their children and grandchildren despite what has been called a “gentler generation gap” by Pew Research.After all, we weren’t all that good and uncovering the treasures of our parents Greatest Generation.  I remember a story told by Robert Bly in which he was asked to interview a renowned nuclear scientist from the WWII era.  Robert made a trek up to Maine where the long-retired genius lived.  He began by making an apology to the man saying he was sure that young students had been a continual bother to his serenity.  The old man replied; “I have been here for thirty years.  No one has come.”There is a terrific book by Henry Alford called “How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth).” Alford was moved by the wisdom of his 79 year old mother.  He interviewed her along with people like Harold Bloom, Phyllis Diller as well as a woman who walked across the US at age 89, authors, pastors and others.

He became convinced that older people are indeed wise and have much to offer us. I was fortunate enough to have a grandfather who inspired us to pay attention.  Roy H. Jones was born in 1875 and lived until 1972.  His father was born in 1816.  His two generational wisdom spanning 150 years was freely tapped through his good humor, motto, sayings and philosophy (“Don’t Worry, Don’t Hurry and Don’t Hate”).  His family took him seriously.  To this day he is quoted by his many descendants.  We believe that there is a storehouse of riches waiting to be revealed in the lives and stories of the older generations. There are many reasons to listen and seek them out.

Boomers are the newest gatekeepers of great wisdom. And we are waiting. The next time a holiday or special event enables you to gather together with extended family, take the opportunity to make real contact by asking and listening. Spend some time face to face.  All the texting, emailing, FaceBooking, and FaceTiming can take a back seat to the close encounter of a family kind. You may find some information that will give deeper insight into who you really are.  What a gift to be given and to receive. This is what we long to offer.

_________________Banner photo by Phillip LeConte at www.Arkdog.comVideo clip from documentary "The Power of Myth" originally broadcast as six one-hour conversations between mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) and journalist Bill Moyers.

Robert Kenneth Jones is an innovator in the treatment of addiction and childhood abuse.In a career spanning over four decades, his work helping people recover from childhood abuse and addiction has earned him the respect of his peers.His blog, An Elephant for Breakfast, testifies to the power of the human spirit to overcome the worst of life’s difficulties. We encourage you to visit and share this rich source of healing, inspiration and meditation.

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Bob Jones’ blog An Elephant for Breakfast