The Truth About Aging in America

Older People

Baby-Boomers are taking up activities they never had time for before; that indeed should make retirement seem like the “golden years”.


By: Lillian B. Rubin, Ph.D.

Increasingly long life spans:

If a public conversation on aging is to have any value, we need to talk about how much has changed and how little, about the social and psychological meanings of living so long and how they interact with each other in a society that, at best, is ambivalent about its old. We need to think aloud about the impact of our increasingly long life span on those who follow up, about the pleasures, the pains, and the many sorrows this stage of life brings, about the gift our expanded life span has bestowed upon us and the significant costs that accompany it.

The false promise of “the golden years”:

Where then did the idea of “the gold years” come from? Is this just media hype that has no relation to the reality of people’s experience in old age? Or was it a more or less apt description of some earlier time? Maybe when people only lived a few years after retirement, the relief from a lifetime of work and tight schedules, the freedom to allow themselves to expand fully into the space they inhabit, to take up activities they never had time for before, did indeed make these years golden. Maybe so many of us feel so differently now because they last so long.

The realities of sex and aging:

My experience, therefore, is that if you take the time to probe beneath the surface, even good-news stories get far more complicated than the media representation. And what’s more, there aren’t many of them. So while tales of sexual athleticism at eighty may make younger people feel better when they contemplate their own future, I don’t think it’s wise to let the few speak for many. Such distortion of what’s real in the world, what people can expect as they age, leads to the kind of confusion, disappointment, and self-doubt so many aging people experience. It’s corrosive in any arena of living, but worse so in sex because it’s the one thing, even more than money, that most people are reluctant to talk about.

The shrinking social networks of old age:

Friendship, then, presents one of several paradoxes of this time of life. We want friends, need them as never before, but we’re also less tolerant, less willing, as one woman said, “to put up with stuff I don’t like anymore”. We feel abandoned, an experience that has some objective reality, and are saddened because we’re no longer wanted and sought after as we once were. But we can’t, maybe don’t want to, do what it takes to nurture these relationships as easily as we used to. We want to be in the world, want to have a place in it at the same time that we need more solitude than ever and, therefore, have withdrawn some part of ourselves, some of the energy that was once given over to our friendships, into a quieter, more contemplative and, all to often, lonely place.

Longevity’s financial impact on the next generation:

For much of their lives these baby-boom children of the middle-and-upper class have known there was a cushion beneath them that would break any fall. They’re accustomed to being helped and supported by their parents’ generosity and have often lived their lives, made their own decisions about spending and saving based on their expectations of an inheritance. Now, as they watch that promise being washed away by a torrent of expenses related directly to their parents’ longevity, they’re finding out the hard way that this was a risky assumption.

We’ll spend untold millions on research to keep people living longer and longer but almost nothing to ensure that they can live those years in reasonable comfort. Until we acknowledge these contradictions and change the policies that flow from them, more than a few children will impoverish themselves to help pay for the care of parents who have outlived their savings.


About the Author:

Dr. Lillian B. Rubin’s books include The Man with the Beautiful Voice, Tangled Lives, Worlds of Pain, Intimate Strangers and Just Friends. She lives in San Francisco, where last year she sold her first painting at the age of eight-two.


These excerpts are from a book written by Dr. Rubin entitled 60 On UP published by Beacon Press. Permission to reprint was given to Not Just the Kitchen.

Photo: rileyroxx