Last week, the New York Times offered two starkly opposing visions of aging in America. The optimistic one, which appeared in the “Style” section, celebrated well off older women who had the resources to take excellent care of themselves. Called “Vanity is not a cardinal sin,” it tracked women in upscale retirement homes who were still interested in looking good. “Armed with robust confidence and, often, a bank account to match, they work out, practice warrior yoga poses, paint balayage [free hand] streaks into their hair, shop and dress with an undiminished purpose and pride,” writes Ruth la Perla. A main character in the story, Shirley Freitag, was planning to move into a new assisted living facility where prices started at $13,000 a month.
In the “Science” section the same week was an article with a much less upbeat title and message: “Many Americans will need long term care–Most won’t be able to afford it.” The author, Paula Spann, tells the story of Gretchen Harris, a retired attorney in Norman, Oklahoma. Although she worked all her life, divorce and health problems put a damper on her savings. Her retirement earnings, some $4600 a month, are barely enough to pay for assisted living facility in her town, and prices rise every year. Selling her mortgaged house would not bring in enough to bolster her meager savings. She knows she will need some help in the future, but doesn’t know how she could possibly pay for it. It’s a dilemma facing a huge number of older Americans.
I see this bifurcated vision on aging everywhere. On the one side are the optimists who see positive changes in the lives of older people today. Improvements in health care, expanding technologies, and increased knowledge about the importance of exercise and engagement have made the lives of many elderly people more vibrant. On the other hand, the pessimists remind us that this bright new world of aging is dependent on good incomes, good access to health care, and a good deal of luck in life.
The vast majority of elderly Americans live in fear of their future. Let’s not let good news overshadow that fact.