Census report: for more seniors, rising well-being

Each spring, Erdman Palmore celebrates his birthday by completing his own special version of a triathlon. He bicycles his age in miles - this year, that means 76 - then does just as many push-ups and sit-ups.

"It is to counteract the assumption," says the professor emeritus at Duke University, "that growing older means inevitably going downhill" - unless it is on his bicycle.

Seniors like Dr. Palmore are helping redefine notions of "getting older." Forgotten by the media, passed over for promotions, and teased by birthday cards, they have long struggled for dignity in a youth-obsessed society.

But increasingly active and independent seniors, and the baby boomers who will follow, are helping to chip away at the ageism that spans Hollywood to Hallmark. Seniors today are healthier, wealthier, and more educated than their predecessors - and their population will double in the next 25 years.

Those are the highlights from a US Census Bureau report released Thursday on Americans 65 and older. Among its findings:

• Poverty is declining. The proportion of those living in poverty decreased from 35 percent in 1959 to 10 percent in 2003.

• Disability is decreasing. The disability rate fell from 26 percent in 1982 to 20 percent in 1999.

• Education is rising. The percentage with a bachelor's degree grew five-fold from 1950 to 2003.

• Divorce is rising. In 1960, just 1.6 percent of older men and 1.5 percent of older women were divorced. By 2003, those figures had risen to 7 percent of men and 8.6 percent of women.

Many reports of America's aging - and longer-living - population emphasize the massive government costs associated with caring for seniors. But the rising standards of living of today's seniors reported by the Census shows that the coming retirement wave could also bode well for the US economy. Today, boomers account for $2 trillion in spending each year.

Marketers take notice

Marketers and manufacturers are taking notice. "What is happening is a lot of marketers who missed it when boomers turned 50, are saying 'We better not miss it again,' " says Jim Fishman, the publisher of AARP Publications.

The financial industry is leading the way. A new ad for Fidelity Investments features boomer icon Paul McCartney. The slogan? Never stop doing what you love. "It challenges that traditional view of aging and retirement, that you quit, you are done, now take a vacation and see ya," says Brent Green, author of "Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers."

Some experts worry that the affluence of baby boomers is being overstated, hiding distressing situations for subgroups, especially at a time of soaring healthcare costs. While only 8 percent of older whites lived in poverty in 2003, 20 percent of blacks and 24 percent of Hispanics did, according to the new Census report.

Attention to wealth could also feed into the "greedy geezer construct," says Robert Binstock, a professor of aging, health, and society at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. That could fuel calls to cut Social Security or pensions, on which many seniors depend. In 2001, Social Security accounted for 39 percent of seniors' personal income.

Higher divorce rates

Older people today also face challenges that some of their predecessors did not. Rising rates of divorce are changing senior lifestyles. In 2003, among those in their 60s, 12.2 percent of men and 15.9 percent of women were divorced.

Older people who lived alone faced the highest poverty rates. In 2003, among older women living alone, poverty rates were 17 percent for white women and 40 percent for black and Hispanic women.

And even as standards of living improve, few expect old perceptions to dissolve quickly.

Stereotypes remain rampant in the media, says Todd Nelson, a psychology professor specializing in aging at California State University, Stanislaus.

The movie "Grumpy Old Men," for example, is stereotypical in the title itself. He sees beauty products that cover signs of aging as problematic, too. "Popular culture needs to make aging a badge of honor rather than something to be feared or shunned," Professor Nelson says. "You would never pick up a card saying, 'I am sorry that you are black,' but birthday cards say 'I am sorry you are getting older.' "

Indeed, experts point out that ageism is perhaps the most universal of the discriminatory "isms", since virtually all older people face prejudice due to their age.

Palmore, the triathlete, says ageism comes from fear. "I try to tell people that each birthday they should celebrate that their life expectancy has increased."

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