A VIGOROUS George Alexander is on the crest of a new wave in America.
He and almost 5 million other Americans, all 85 and older, now make up the fastest growing percentage of all older Americans.
By 2020, the wave of 85ers will increase to almost 8 million, according to an estimate by the United States Census Bureau. And a popular image that all these ``seniors among seniors'' are physically or mentally limited is not true.
According to government studies, the vast majority of 85ers, like Mr. Alexander, lead alert and active lives. Sociologists say these Americans are the product of an increasingly high standard of living, a life of good habits, varied activities, education, and advances in medical and health care. Many of the 85ers have been financially successful too.
``I came to the conclusion long ago that mental and physical activity was a must,'' says Mr. Alexander, who lives with his wife, Margaret, in a comfortable apartment in Belmont, Massachusetss. He continues to do tax work several days a week for clients, reads widely, travels abroad with his wife, and meets most afternoons with friends at an Armenian social club.
But many other Americans in their 80's, even with families helping, are in poverty, living in inadequate housing, or inferior nursing homes, and are faced with severe physical and mental problems. ``Our nation has not yet faced the issue of seeing all older Americans as productive,'' says Jon Pynoos, associate professor of gerontology at the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California.
In the 1980's, the nation's nursing-home population rose 24 percent, with the increase coming mostly from people 85 and older. The number of women in nursing homes now outnumbers men almost 3 to 1, and elderly black women are a disproportionate number of the elderly poor.
``In the future we will have many more people who have successfully aged,'' Mr. Pynoos says, ``and we need to figure out how to make use of what they have to offer. But there are many now who need care and can't handle daily living. We also need new types of residential settings for those who need supervised supportive care, but not nursing-home care.''
The US Census Bureau projects that by 2030 the number of people 65 and over will double to about 65.6 million. The ``baby boomers'' will have reached retirement age and make up over 22 percent of the population.
``We need to realize that older people are a resource,'' says Christine Himes, an assistant professor of sociology at Penn State University, ``and not let them be a drain on our nation's resources. We need to find ways to include them in society.''
But as more and more Americans live longer, gerontologists and economists are concerned that the balancing act provided by the Social Security system between workers and retirees will go awry.
Today, five workers financially support one retiree with Social Security deductions. In the future, around 2030, and in a worst case scenario, there might be three workers for every two retirees.
``We have plenty of time to work the funding out,'' says Diane McLaughlin, associate director for the Center on Aging and Health in Rural America at Penn State University,``and reach political agreement on how to finance the health care that will be needed, too.''
One answer to the doubts of the viability of Social Security's future is to encourage younger Americans not to rely on it exclusively for retirement. ``It's important that we help young workers to save for their own retirements,'' says Pynoos.
``Young workers have to be in situations that are extremely productive,'' he says.
``They need to enhance technological abilities and understanding because our technological age calls for fewer workers,'' he adds. ``The best way to provide for the needs of an aging population is to have a vibrant economy.''