Childhood prediction may not live up to reality

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By Sondra L. Shapiro

When I was in the first grade, I had a particular interest in the number 100. I liked the way it sounded and looked. When I informed my teacher that I planned on living to 100, she didn’t laugh. Instead she incorporated my proclamation into a lesson. She asked the class to figure out the year it would be when I reached that milestone.

As 6-year-olds in 1959, we couldn’t fathom the year 2053. Amazingly, the decades flew by in a flash, and now at the age of 57, I’m more than half way there. As a huge wave, we baby boomers are advancing to-ward the shore of retirement. The first of my group turns 65 this year.

In 1959 when I made my prediction, the average life expectancy was 69.7. Today, we can expect to live about 10 years more, on average. The 1960 census reported that there were 3,330, centenarians in the United States. A decade ago, it was predicted that by 2010 there would be 114,000 (2010 numbers not yet released) centenarians in this country, increasing the probability that not only may I reach 100, but many of my generation will as well.

Just as there was no consideration — from the perspective of a 6-year-old — given to what my quality of life would be at that very old age, the mindset among Americans is not much more sophisticated now.

Starting with the demands on our health care system.

“It is wonderful news that we are living longer, but it also creates an entirely new set of challenges,” said Dr. Stephen G. Jones, geriatrician and director of the Center for Healthy Aging at Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich, Conn. “The face of medicine is going to start to change rapidly because of this transition,” he said. While the leading cause of death in America 100 years ago was infection, today’s aging population is more likely to suffer from cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Exacerbating the problem with demand for care is an acute shortage of doctors trained to care for the aging population.

A release from the Center for Healthy Aging at Greenwich Hospital cites low insurance reimbursements rates for geriatricians. Other sources report lower pay for the specialty.

So Dr. Jones wants us to consider the challenges our generation poses.

•Boomers will number 70 million by 2030, when the youngest among us will be 70, making us the largest generation of seniors in history. The children of “Geri-Boomers” will struggle to manage care for multiple generations in their families. Rather than the sandwich generation, which refers to adults caring for both their parents and their children, Dr. Jones refers to the “Club Sandwich Generation,” as more adult children will be faced with the responsibilities of caring for their parents, children and sometimes grandchildren.

•Longevity is advancing faster than our ability to keep up with the diseases of aging. Arthritis, orthopedic problems and chronic illnesses will increasingly burden the population and the healthcare system.

•Alzheimer’s disease, which impacted about 4.5 million Americans in 2000, will more than double by the year 2030, and is likely to reach epidemic proportions by 2050. To put this illness in perspective: A new case is diagnosed every 71 seconds and one out of eight Americans 65 and older will be diagnosed. The statistics are more staggering for those 85 and older with one out of two seniors in this age range facing the disease.

•Seniors ages 85 and older are predominately female, raising new issues for women who will spend their later years widowed or single. Their numbers will increase from 4 million in 2000 to an estimated 31 million in 2030.

While we struggle with the health care dilemma, many of my generation will literally outlive their money. According to last July’s Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS) by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), a high percentage of Americans — including those in upper-income categories — will probably run short of money after 10 or 20 years of retirement. Nearly half of early baby boomers — those on the verge of retirement, currently ages 56 to 62 — are at risk of not having sufficient income to pay for basic retirement expenditures and uninsured medical expenses.

And the risk is not confined to those of moderate income. The EBRI study finds that after 20 years of retirement, almost a third (29 percent) of those in the next-to-highest income level will run short of money, as will more than 1 in 10 (13 percent) of those in the highest-income level. It’s not surprising that those with the highest income are at the lowest risk of running short of money, but many in this income category still face significant risks of not being able to pay for basic needs and uninsured medical expenses for the remainder of their lives.

Fewer workers report that they and/or their spouse have saved for retirement (69 percent, down from 75 percent in 2009, but statistically equivalent to 72 percent in 2008).

Moreover, fewer workers say that they and/or their spouse are currently saving for retirement (60 percent, down from 65 percent in 2009, but statistically equivalent to percentages measured in other years).

An increased percentage of workers report they have virtually no savings or investments. Among RCS respondents providing this type of information, 27 percent say they have less than $1,000 in savings (as compared to 20 percent in 2009). More than half of workers (54 percent) report that the total value of their household’s savings and investments, excluding the value of their primary home and any defined benefit plans, is less than $25,000.

“As the private-sector retirement plan system evolves from a largely paternalistic one to a system in which workers must make their own decisions, policymakers need to understand what percentage of the population is likely to fail to achieve retirement security under current conditions,” said Jack VanDerhei, principal author of the study.

My generation has been credited with changing cultures — from the free-spirited Woodstock era to an active middle-age lifestyle. Now, as it becomes no longer unusual to live to be 100, we boomers must sculpt another landscape that allows us to age with grace, better health and financial security.

For while it’s understandable for a 6-year-old to believe reaching 100 would be a breeze, it is inexcusable for a nation of adults to not factor the implications.

If I knew then what I know now, would I be so excited to proclaim that I would live to be 100? It’s a scary panorama from where I sit.

Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Contact her at [email protected] or read more at fiftyplusadvocate.com.