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The Boston Globe

Magazine

The Boomers Issue

Rethinking the golden years

As the first of 78 million baby boomers close in on 70, the head of the Tufts Health Plan Foundation says it’s time to change the rules of “old age.”

Rose Blake

AH, RETIREMENT. Long walks on the beach. Family picnics with grandchildren at our feet. Youthful good looks that never fade. In the United States, we have long aspired to a retirement filled with abject leisure. But maybe, just maybe, we should be seeking something else. Maybe we need to redefine our image of retirement to account for what it’s really like today.

The reality of retirement in America circa 2013 is nothing like the idealized image of decades past. Every day in this country about 10,000 people turn 65. And rather than basking in the sun in some pricey exotic locale, many of them are struggling to make ends meet. In 2011, the median income for people 65 and older was $27,707 for men and $15,362 for women. That same year, almost 3.6 million elderly people — nearly 1 in 10 — were living below the poverty line.

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The recent recession hit baby boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, particularly hard. According to a study by The Pew Charitable Trusts, older boomers (those born through 1955) lost 28 percent of their median net worth — about $68,000, on average — between 2007 and 2010. Even with the economic recovery, many are still planning to work for years to come.

Economic concerns have also earned boomers another nickname: “the sandwich generation.” Many now find themselves taking care of parents at the same time they’re caring for adult children and/or younger grandchildren. Experts say this generation may become the first to spend as many years caring for aging parents as it did taking care of its own children.

In the meantime, boomers will have their own health to consider. People now turning 65 are expected to live 18 to 20 more years, decades during which they will probably face myriad health challenges. Ninety-two percent of older adults already have at least one chronic disease, and 77 percent have at least two. Older people spend three to five times more on health care than those younger than 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet these realities do not have to presage a grim future. Just because the golden years aren’t what we were promised, that doesn’t mean we can’t create a more achievable image of retirement — a positive one that takes into account new opportunities to change people’s lives. In his book The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Dan Buettner studies communities with a significantly disproportionate number of centenarians. These “Blue Zones” exist in diverse cultures — from Okinawa, Japan, to Sardinia, Italy, to Loma Linda, California — but almost all of the centenarians share one characteristic: They are not just alive, they are living.

Throughout his book, Buettner shows the benefits of continued purposeful engagement, whether through work, volunteering, strong social connections, or involvement in a faith-based community. In these “Blue Zones,” older farmers still farm, older physicians still practice medicine, and older parents help care for later generations. These aren’t people who chase youth in the gym; they live in environments where physical activity is built into everyday life. Maybe most important, older adults in these communities aren’t shuffled to the side and ignored; they are respected and treated as learned advisers and mentors. All of this purposeful engagement correlates with longer life and better health.

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Fortunately, the seeds for a powerful image of our retirement years are already being planted throughout Massachusetts. We at the Tufts Health Plan Foundation are proud to fund many organizations in this state that focus on purposeful engagement. Generations Incorporated and Jumpstart Community Corps, for example, match young children with older mentors. Organizations such as Discovering What’s Next, Executive Service Corps, Operation A.B.L.E., ReServe Greater Boston, SOAR 55, and the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts place older adults into paid or volunteer community-service positions and help dispel the stereotypes surrounding hiring senior workers.

Rose Blake

Housing alternatives are also growing in popularity. More and more older adults are turning to senior-housing communities to maintain their social connections and create an informal caregiving network. At Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly, a Greater Boston network, one-third of residents have been deemed “nursing home eligible,” but only 3 percent per year actually spend their final days in a nursing home. And for those who do enter nursing homes, the average age of admission is about 88, close to a decade older than the national average. This difference translates into health care savings and, more important, improved quality of life.

In addition, new transportation options like ITNGreaterBoston match volunteer drivers, more than one-third of whom are boomers, with older adults who no longer get behind the wheel. As boomers age and eventually put aside their own car keys, such innovative transportation solutions are critical to keeping them involved in their communities while easing the burden on family and other informal caregivers. There are a lot of innovations to celebrate here.

Make no mistake, a demographic tsunami of baby boomers is coming — the older adult population in Massachusetts is expected to grow by one-third by 2030, to nearly 1.8 million. The boomers will once again affect the working world, health care, and how we live as families. But this need not be a disaster. We can find middle ground between debunking the retirement myth of endless sun and fun and focusing too much on economic struggles and diminishing health. By providing room for purposeful engagement, we won’t just encourage longer and healthier lives, we’ll bring another incredible resource to our shores: the accumulated wisdom of our elders.

David Abelman is president of the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, which focuses on healthy aging. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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