On the Road to an Aging America

On the Road to an Aging America

We've arrived in the twenty-first century living longer, healthier lives than ever before, which is cause for celebration. It means we've put science and technology to good use, allowing us to reap the benefits of better sanitation, improved food production and quality, and breakthrough medical technologies.

Meanwhile, in this new century the United States continues to grow older as a nation. Our 65-plus population has jumped from about 3 million in 1900 to 35 million today, on its way to 70 million in another thirty years. In fact, we're headed into a period where, for the first time in history, older people will outnumber children. This is new ground.

Yet with all of our advances, 3.4 million men and women age 65 or older live on incomes considered below poverty. Another 2.2 million are "near poor." For them, the American dream is fading. Amid tremendous strides in one of the world's wealthiest nations, a reasonable and acceptable quality of life has eluded them. At the AARP Foundation, we don't believe it has to be this way. We don't believe it should be this way. If we can develop a giant telescope capable of transmitting images from outer space, surely we can improve the quality of life for the aging poor in America.

As AARP's charitable and philanthropic arm, the AARP Foundation is a catalyst for social change and champion for people 50-plus and their families. We stand in the gap, committed to helping the most vulnerable members of society meet their basic needs. Low-income individuals, women, and minorities are the primary beneficiaries of our programs and services.

Any number of reasons account for the economic plight of vulnerable older Americans. Gender plays a significant role. The poverty rate for older women is 12.5 percent, compared to 7 percent for men. Women, the traditional caregivers for children and adult relatives, are much more likely than men to have spent time out of the workforce, earning little or no income, while raising families or caring for others. In general, women in the workforce tend to earn lower wages than men, and just over half of employed women participate in employer-sponsored pension plans. A mere 29 percent of all women 65 and over receive pension income.

Minority affiliation also plays a significant role. For example, without Social Security, almost 33 percent of older Hispanics would fall into poverty, while 75 percent receive the majority of their income from Social Security. Whites continue to dominate the middle and upper-class, though the numbers are gradually changing, and minorities remain highly represented in the lower-income brackets.

Other factors contributing to the financial woes of vulnerable older Americans include:

  • Lack of savings: baby boomers are notoriously poor savers, and only half of U.S. families save in any type of retirement account.
  • Little or no pension or retirement plan: only 20 percent of workers have traditional pension plans, and just 50 percent of private-sector employees are signed up for a 401(k) or other employee-sponsored retirement plan.
  • Lack of health insurance: more than 46 million people are uninsured.
  • Poor health and preventive care: at least 29 percent of people skip treatments, tests, and filling prescriptions because of cost.
  • Inability to pay medical bills: nearly a quarter of all Americans have trouble paying their medical bills; millions go bankrupt because of medical expenses.

Death of a spouse, sudden illness or disability, and consumer fraud add to the strains on personal health and finances. More than 2.5 million grandparents in America find themselves caring for their grandchildren.

Additionally, many seniors are ill-prepared for dramatic life changes like the loss of friends and family, unexpected physical challenges, substantially reduced incomes, or navigating supportive services. Neither are family members, who must often make critical decisions about the care of a loved one under pressure, with limited means, and/or with inadequate information.

Unquestionably, the most basic and pressing national domestic needs are health and long-term financial security for all Americans -- not just older Americans, but their children and grandchildren as well. As a nation, we've already waited too long to start addressing these issues, but better late than never. Now is the time for all of us to engage in a national conversation about our experiences and concerns with respect to health care and our long-term financial security.

Beyond talk, there's an urgent need for action. Clearly, nothing short of concerted bipartisan efforts by our elected officials, the health, business, and nonprofit sectors, and we, the people, will bring about solutions to these challenges. We simply must demand this of ourselves and our leaders.

Strengthening Social Security to bring about long-term solvency isn't an option; it's a must. Beyond that, the ability for mature Americans to earn a living, save money, and maintain their health coverage is essential to their retirement and long-term financial security.

Reshaping our health care system to provide affordable quality care for everyone is also not an option but a must. We spend $2 trillion on health care annually - $6,300 for every man, woman, and child considerably more than most developed nations. But we get less, not more, for our money, and costs continue to rise faster than inflation.

At the AARP Foundation, our mission is simple: to build a society in which everyone ages with dignity and purpose. We work to protect mature Americans from discrimination and abuse; develop training and employment opportunities; and help eligible individuals get government benefits and a host of other supports. In light of recent events, we've also established a disaster relief and recovery fund, and we've developed a program to cultivate future women philanthropists, since women are at greater health and economic risk as they age than men.

Thankfully, we're not the only organization committed to ensuring opportunity, justice, and security for the aging in our society, but there's a desperate need for more. As we challenge ourselves, so we challenge the philanthropic community to step forward and take a stand for health and financial security for people of all ages. Through partnerships with government, business, the philanthropic community, and nonprofit organizations we can make a difference. It will take a nation to create a brighter future for every American across the aging continuum

Robin Talbert is executive director of the AARP Foundation, providing leadership in development, litigation, and programs. Prior to joining AARP seventeen years ago, she was an attorney with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, specializing in consumer law.