The graying of America

COMEDIAN/actor George Burns has just had his 89th birthday. That may not be big news in a nation confronted with enormous economic and foreign policy problems, but Burns's accomplishment -- continuing an active life in ``old age'' -- is a harbinger of the social revolution that will typify America in the 21st century. Fifty years ago when the social security legislation went into effect, there were only 2 million Americans over the age of 65. By 1950, the figure reached 11 million, and today more than 13 percent of the population -- 30 million people -- are senior citizens. Like any social change, the aging of the population brings about both good and bad results. The bad news, as illustrated by some European nations, is that an inadequate ``replacement ratio'' with respect to population can emerge; that is, a condition in which there are too few people to pay the social bills of the coming years. Fortunately, the United States is minimally affected by this untoward trend, for there is still a positive -- albeit slower -- birthrate. Moreover, immigration continues to bolster population figures.

The good news about the graying of America is that criminal activity tends to decline, since younger people traditionally commit a disproportionate share of crimes. So, all in all, the nation and its individuals are presented with the challenge of adapting social institutions to the new conditions (recall the similar adaptation on the other end of the age spectrum with the post-World War II baby-boomers). Three Florida communities -- Sarasota/Bradenton, West Palm Beach/Boca Raton, and St. Petersburg -- are well advanced in their adaptation, providing insights for other American communities with increasing proportions of senior citizens. Then there is the decade-long research of the National Institute of Mental Health, which examined more than 600 variables pertaining to longevity and social adaptation. Not surprisingly, the institute found that one of the keys to a good, long life is the daily behavior of the individual in a community. The more that an elderly person has to do, the better. George Burns, in a recent interview for the International Medical Centers, put it this way: ``Don't retire. And get out of bed every morning. Find something to do: do charitable work, volunteer at the local hospital, try to help other people. You have to do something!''

In spending my Christmas holidays with my mother in south Florida, I observed that Burns's wisdom was widely shared by the area's senior citizens. The county library, on a balmy weekday afternoon, was overflowing with silver-haired patrons. Early-morning walks on the beach were monopolized by the over-65 generation. Then there were the afternoon and evening activities at the community centers, which bristled with the animation that I thought would be reserved for ``youth'' centers.

Escorting my mother to a New Year's Eve dance for senior citizens, I talked with several about their daily activities. Like my mother, who plies her trade as a seamstress, virtually all worked in some capacity every single day. One woman in her 70s taught tap-dancing. Another worked for the county school system while her husband held two part-time jobs. Oh yes -- and they boasted, not confided, that they danced two or three times a week.

As I waltzed, did the rumba and polka, and jitterbugged into the new year, I thought about my entry into the senior citizen ranks in a few years -- armed with a bit more experiential insight and less trepidation on the matter. I also thought about George Burns's 89th birthday, as well as my mother's. Of course, my mother isn't as old as Mr. Burns. By no means. She'll be a mere 85 in March.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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