ORLANDO FLA. — For Jimmy Carter, aging has little to do with calendars or birth dates. "Old age is when we think we are old," he says, offering a new, nonchronological definition. Retirement, he adds, offers "more freedom to shape our lives than ever before."
Former President Carter, who has had 19 years of retirement to prove his point, may have been speaking to the converted last week when he addressed 3,000 members of the American Society on Aging at its annual conference. At the same time, his comments sum up an optimistic new philosophy of the later years that is reshaping everything from public policy to health care, employment, housing, and recreation.
But Mr. Carter also posed a critical question to the gerontologists, social workers, academics, nurses, and theologians in his audience: "What are we going to do with the changes in our society brought about by increased life expectancy?" And how do we value the elderly?
The answers floating through the balmy Florida air for four days acknowledged the huge moral and ethical issues involved - issues that will require lengthy debate about who should make end-of-life decisions and whose responsibility it is to pay for long-term care. As if to underscore that biomedical progress cannot provide all the answers, conference planners offered 20 workshops dealing with religion and spirituality.
Yet for all the talk of freedom and opportunity in what sociologists call the "third age" of life, any idealization of aging remains a goal for the future. Although talk about "healthy aging" may be replacing patronizing metaphors about the autumn or winter of life, optimism about living to be 120 is tempered by existing needs - physical, emotional, and financial.
Some conference participants fear a growing split not only between young and old but within the ranks of older people themselves. They warn that changes in public policy, such as the privatization of Social Security, could further divide the affluent elderly who can take care of themselves from the lower-income elderly who cannot. Already older women and minorities remain the most vulnerable in this age group.
Sociologists and marketers further emphasize the diverse needs and interests of the older population. In the conference exhibit hall, products for "mature markets" ranged from exercise bikes to electric wheelchairs, from drinkable vitamins to personal emergency alert systems and home-modification devices that enable older people to "age in place."
Carter notes that the political power of older people is "not well understood." Among 20-year-olds, 20 percent vote. By age 40, 40 percent vote. At 60, the figure rises to 60 percent.
Initially, the conference's Disney World setting struck a few participants as incongruous: Mickey Mouse meets Medicare in what one speaker called a "post-modern playground."
But as vacationing families heading for the Magic Kingdom milled around the hotel lobby with conference-goers, the mix of generations neatly illustrated two recurring themes of the meeting: the importance of integrating, rather than segregating, young and old, and the growing youthfulness of age.
Encouraging participants to "keep a spirit of adventure and live a dynamic life, whether we are 56 or 66 or 86," Carter said, "We grow old when regrets take the place of dreams. I hope you will all continue to dream. The most important thing is what you are able to do for other people."
Even Mickey offered some unexpected advice to hotel guests requesting a wake-up call. "Up and at 'em, pal," the cheerful mouse urged in a recorded message. As if to echo Carter's celebratory approach to the later years, he added, "Big doings going on, so let's get started."