Defining Aging Difficult In Modern Society

The following post is an excerpt from a recent article on MI Seniors, a service of the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging.  It was written by Shirley Bentsen.

Aging and Health

Life is a continuum. In many ways, the everyday lives of older people are simply an extension of their younger lives. An active 30 year old will likely be an active 50 year old. A 40-something with no health insurance and untreated health conditions (such as diabetes) will likely experience the dire consequence of that in their 60’s. Someone who values close bonds with family and friends at a younger age will likely continue having a support system available when help is needed as he or she ages.

At the same time, our bodies intrinsically change as we advance in years. Dark hair becomes white, taut skin eventually wrinkles, eye glasses become a necessary fashion statement, hearing diminishes, and episodic, chronic, and/or progressive health conditions surface as a result of lifestyle, longevity, and genetics. These natural changes brought on by aging present a unique set of both challenges and opportunities in the health arena.

Michigan’s Older Population

  • The aging population is growing at an unprecedented rate, and people are living longer than at any time in our history. Some 1.8 million people aged 60+ reside in Michigan – currently 18% of the state’s total population. The 85+ age group represents the fastest growing segment of Michigan’s population.
  • There are 3.9 million people aged 45 and older in Michigan, many of whom are caregivers of older family and friends. Informal, unpaid caregivers provide the vast majority of support to family members and loved ones on a daily or periodic basis, assisting with bathing, food preparation, medical care, etc. The significant contributions of family caregivers are not without their costs, however, impacting the caregivers’ job, health, stress level, and finances.
  • The likelihood of having more than one disease increases with age. The diseases most common in older people are high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, stroke, and cancer.
  • As importantly as disease, falls and fall-related complications are a leading cause of disability (such as hip fractures) and even death in older adults, occurring annually in 1/3 of community-dwelling older adults and in 50% of those living in nursing facilities.

There is no one definition of what getting older in our society means. And the older population is far from homogeneous. Older people are poor, middle class, or financially well-heeled. They are ethnically diverse with views unique to their culture. They may be alone, have a spouse or partner, have no grandchildren or have 20. They may swim 10 laps a day or be unable to prepare a meal. Many have at least one disability that hinders their ability to perform daily tasks. And the older adult population itself spans multiple generations; the health needs of a 60 year old are likely to be significantly different from those of an 80 year old. Because of the heterogeneity of this population group, a single, cookie cutter approach to health policy is insufficient in meeting their complex needs, wants, and preferences.

In a society that values youth, ageism exists. Unlike most cultures around the world, American culture has not embraced the older population. Aging stereotypes and biases – unfortunately learned by the age of four – creep into all aspects of life, and the health care field is no exception. Confusion in an older patient, for example, is at times wrongly determined to be a result of aging rather than other causes, such as medication interaction. Or it may be wrongly assumed that older people are set in their ways and can’t or won’t learn new health behaviors. The fact is that different stages of life require different societal responses. The societal investment that supports our older population’s health needs, for example, is as necessary as the societal investment that supports our youth’s educational needs.

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