The Prairie Doc Perspective

Expectations of the elderly

By Richard P. Holm MD

39 million Americans or 13% of the U.S. population are 65 and older, and our nation’s 76 million baby boomers are just beginning to turn 65. A timely 2009 Pew Research poll on growing old, found encouraging words as well as a sizable gap between the expectations of young people and what actually happens.

The survey asked about negative benchmarks of aging such as illness, memory loss, inability to drive, an end to sexual activity, loneliness and depression, and difficulty paying bills. The study discovered that younger people thought elderly would experience more problems of aging than actually occurred. It’s good to know they were wrong.

I found it encouraging that only 40% of those aged 85 or older experienced significant memory loss, only 30% experienced feeling sad or depressed, only 25% no longer drove, and the vast majority had made peace with their circumstances, with only 1% that said their lives had turned out worse than expected.

But in contrast the survey also asked about benefits of aging such as spending more time with family, traveling for pleasure, having more time for hobbies, and doing volunteer work. Younger people thought the elderly would experience more of these benefits than actually occurred. That’s disappointing.

But what is encouraging, the survey found that older people were just as happy as everyone else, and the same factors for all ages predicted it: good health, good friends, and some degree of financial security.

The widest gap in old versus young, not surprisingly, was the percentage of young versus old using the Internet, cell phones, and social networking, although that is changing.  Another gap of interest was the rate of religion being an important part of one’s life. Not surprisingly, 66% of those over 65 said religion is important to them, compared to 50% of those 30-49, and 44% of those 18-29.

I was encouraged to learn that 75% of those 65 and older said they have talked with their family about end-of-life matters, and that the majority of these conversations were initiated by the parent and directed to their adult children.

Finally it was heartwarming to learn that of all the good things about getting old, the older adults by far chose as their favorite: spending more time with family members, especially grandchildren.

Don’t have any of those yet, but I have expectations.

Dr. Rick Holm wrote this Prairie Doc Perspective for “On Call®,” a weekly program where medical professionals discuss health concerns for the general public.  “On Call®” is produced by the Healing Words Foundation in association with the South Dakota State University Journalism Department. “On Call®” airs Thursdays on South Dakota Public Broadcasting-Television at 7 p.m. Central, 6 p.m. Mountain. Visit us at 

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