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The real seniors will be responsible for themselves

What do we mean by senior? Well, it depends on where you stand and what you are reading. Seen through the Google Glassy lens of young adults, it’s everyone aged 50+, that is, the AARP market demographic, who might be considered a senior. Or perhaps it is age 65, when Medicare eligibility and public transit discounts appear. Age 65 is also the statistical baseline for longevity projections – 20 more years of life expectancy, with one in four projected to live past 90. Now mull over a new Pew global survey about attitudes on aging -- the US stood out as "one of very few countries where a large plurality of the public believes individuals are primarily responsible for their own well-being in old age." Consider that point and read on.

What does a 40 year (from age 50 to age 90) additional lifespan mean? Social Security eligibility begins at age 62 – based on available data, the percentage claiming at 62 rose during the recession (along with unemployment). This is a sad commentary on availability of jobs for older workers – claiming at 62 in recent years has hovered around 50%.  But taking Social Security at age 62 limits outside earnings to $15,480 per year per 'retiree until they reach full retirement age.'  So let’s assume that the 50% taking Social Security at 62 did not believe that they had significant alternative work options. And the other 50% will keep on working as long as they can. In fact, in 2010, 30% of those aged 65-69 were still working and 21% of those 70-74 were counted in the labor force participation rate.

Let’s get focused on the real senior: not working, chronic conditions, on their own. There are 17 million Americans age 75+, more women than men. In 2010, only 8.6% of that population was in the labor force. Nearly half of the 75+ live alone. Faced with a life expectancy at 75 of at least 10 more years -- now consider that a plurality of Americans (unlike other countries) believe individuals are responsible for their well-being in old age. Well-being, let’s think about that. Half of the 75+ population has arthritis. And the most common other chronic conditions include heart disease, hypertension, cataracts and hearing impairment. Yes, there are exceptions -- check out the 86-year-old gymnast, 92-year-old runner, and this 90-year-old swim medalist. Okay, so forget the age and focus on statistically likely needs that may follow adults who live well past the age of 75.   

The real senior needs better than today’s technology – it must be modular, customized based on need. The real senior may be one who is independent, competent, living alone, but faced with health changes that can slow one's pace; life changes that can make a home a scary place to be alone; low savings levels that limit freedom; and an inability to find paid work. The real senior will look at Google Glass and self-driving cars as laughable distractions. The real senior with arthritis will pick up a hard-to-clip-on tiny Fitbit with its cutsy messages and put it down. The real senior will watch as the pace of technology change obsoletes particular smart phones and tablets just as they might have offered a useful possibility -- replacing them with sleeker, costlier, too-large-to-hold, curved, tougher-to-navigate devices, with an average broadband cost of $89/month. Actual data usage on a tablet or smart phone may be sending the young into poverty – for the real senior, viewing those grandchildren YouTube videos could turn into a costly nightmare. And anyway, only one in three of those age 75+ is online, only one in five has broadband. Clearly the designers of cars, the marketers of social media, the carriers of devices and sellers of data plans don’t really want to sell to real seniors.  How funny that these firms will likely saturate the markets of the young and eventually have no place else to go.


"Especially considering pensions and benefits as they've devolved, indeed too many 75+ will be on their own ... unless we change perceptions and practices. Much work ahead ..."

Laurie, this is an excellent post. As a sociologist and public health professional in a rural state, I've been thinking about these demographic realities since you posted about new technologies and how they would benefit post-discharge education. Elders disproportionately make up the populations of rural states--but that means their kids have left and they are often on their own except for seeing home health people etc. There are many tech opportunities of course, but the average household income of US seniors is $28-29K, I believe. I think the key to addressing this and other realities is more than a "if you build it, we will come," approach to tech--but rather reviewing the adult learning literature on what works, doing meaningful research that actually includes a truly representative sample of elders-- (AARP does good research but their focus groups seem to often be conducted in big cities--don't know re survey metholodogy)and recognizing the realities that many older people have not only chronic illness but disabilities that affect how they access technology. And given the still-limited use of technology by people 65 plus, I think a combination of technology and printed or oral education is probably what still works best. Maybe more than that though we need to build community--but that's another story!

The Pew study is fascinating and shows that Americans need to read the tea leaves and prepare for an aging demographic. Instead, they're taking the "What? Me worry?" Alfred E. Neuman approach. Not wise.

The Pew study added a glimpse into Global thinking on Aging, Filial Responsibility and who should care for whom. To only have been ahead of Pakistan was an eye opener. Has anyone considered that the elderly today made their plans and did the best they could; they never expected the medicalization of acute illness (cancer, heart disease, etc.) to "jump" over Darwin and create longevity without quality of life. They prepared for the "retire at 65 - dies at 72" mantra of their age - weren't they fooled (don't mess with Mother Nature). Where were the farsighted intellectual to advise the "greatest generation" and ten years thereafter that the rules on life would change 50-65 years hence. If it is every person for themselves and the "hell with helping" the "geriatric tent camps" of the world will be unsupportable and the global result will make Solient Green look like the only alternative. Is it selfish or practical? You decide. By David Levy JD CCE

Bang on assessment. Unless there is a wholesale culture change in the Western World at the macro level in dealing with intended and unintended consequences of social and economic management policies the future is indeed grim.

Spot on assessment. All the fancy tech devices in the world are useless if they can't actually be used in a person's socioeconomic and physical setting. Tech can help aging in place, but they have to fit the aging and the place, not the other way around.

This is a good post because it really defines what a senior really is. I work at an in home care facility and care the seniors on a daily basis. It is odd, you can see a 94 year old that is healthy in every way both in mind and body and then see a 67 year old who is in awful shape. In home care will really depend on the health of the senior.

Your observations are always insightful Laurie. As a physical therapist in a hospital that works with seniors on a regular basis, I definitely understand your viewpoints.

Unfortunately - with the wealth of technology and talents that exists, these designers never appear to focus their efforts on the "real seniors" and never tack the "real problem" - of applying design solutions to caregiving needs and the aging population. It appears as if these designers never truly understand the market, or don't see it as profitable to spend their efforts and talent on such an important issue.