The problems identified in the Frontline program, Living Old, represents a challenge to the agenda setting process.

Spring 2008

In the United States, those over the age of 85 are the fastest growing section today, and it is projected that over the next thirty years, people 65 and older will double, to make up twenty percent of the population. This increase has many implications, from political, fiscal, to social. The Frontline program, Living Old presents these issues through interviews of some members of America’s elderly, as well as academics and doctors. The program looks at the realities of old age today, from the physical to the emotional tolls. There is a fear that the United States will face a national crisis, as this growth has challenges for health care, social security, economic growth, as well as moral- how humans are now regularly having to make difficult decisions regarding the elderly.

As baby boomers have aged, their children are taking care of them while still raising their own kids. The elderly in the United States are also not equally distributed especially because of the retirement migration. More and more retirees are migrating to states like California, Arizona, and Florida where the weather is more flexible for health, and taxes are more favorable. This creates public policy issues for the state as they now have to consider this population in their policy making- such as how to distribute revenue for a certain education program so that it may fulfill the interests of children, but alienate funds that could be used on the elderly. There is no clear evidence that these migration hot spots will get any long term benefit from the migration pattern either. Instead, these population structures pressure governments to alter policies and spend on programs for older adults.

Diversity of the older adult population is also and important consideration in policy making because it brings in the fact that the outcomes in the future of our lives vary a lot across racial, gender, and ethnic groups. The new elder population is increasing in diversity, and will continue to do so in the next fifty years, especially with the greater presence of Hispanics in the United States. This especially affects the elderly population make up and how governments go about addressing various associated issues. For example, in Arizona, not only do you have  and increase in elderly migration, but also a rise in Hispanic immigration, forcing the state to consider both factors when issuing policies. The elder population is also diverse in socioeconomic status; minorities are overrepresented among the elder lower -status groups. Hispanics and blacks in this population are less likely to have a bachelor’s degree or a high school diploma than whites or Asians, and therefore, they have a much lower income than whites and Asians. Increased diversity implies increased economic disparities across groups, leading to many challenges on multiple levels for the current and future older adult population, as well as the government.

Another challenge to the agenda making process for the nation’s elderly is the gender issue because lifestyles differ so greatly between men and women. The “traditional” American family that has married parents and the man being the sole breadwinner is becoming rare, accounting for only 7% of the nation’s households. The percentage of unmarried population is increasing, especially among black women in urban locations. Childbearing is also being delayed, as the percentage of first birth for women over thirty years old has increased from 4% to 21% today. These changes in the family structure have vast insinuation for future elderly, since even today, we expect that our children will take care of us when we reach that level. But in the future, we may not be able to completely rely on our spouse or children for support. Therefore, it is crucial that age policy today consider these demographic realities for American families as well.

The unstable economy of today also tests the elderly population. An unstable economy means that the United States will face difficult economic choices in fiscal distribution, as well as having revenue to use in the first place. The shifts in the elderly population mean that there will be an increased government spending on programs for the aging. As life expectancy increases, the average number of years retirees collect benefit also increases. Improve medical advances and such are likely to increase the length of retirement, meaning longer dependency on the government for benefits.

The decrease in marriage is a problem for the economic well being for the elderly as well. Single mothers that spend much of their time raising kids generally have less wealth than married women and are more likely to be in poverty. These single mothers in lower-income settings that earn minimally are less likely to think about having pension plans since their money is usually used for present needs rather than the future. So, there is a pension inequality between men and women- definitely affecting their well being in the future. So, as more and more single  or divorced women become part of the elderly population, financial preparedness are less likely to exist. Therefore, it is important to take these demographic considerations along with the economic when creating agendas for the elderly.

Another issue on top of the ethnical, gender, geographical, and economic challenges to policy making is the moral subjections of the elderly population. Living Old illustrates this as it takes the perspective of some of America’s elderly in various settings to showcase the emotional aspect of it all. There is a lot of hope and fear among the elderly today. While it is great that people are living longer and healthier today, the price people will pay for the extra decade of longevity is massive. We question if we actually want to live long enough to suffer incurable circumstances of the mind and body. Approximately 105 million Americans have chronic conditions in 2000, and it is projected to increase to 158 million by 2040. The cost associated with chronic disease will be as high as $864 billion in 2040- an incredible economic burden. As Living Old points, our medical system is set up to better treat acute diseases rather than chronic diseases. Many elderly give their children the right to terminate life if their health is at a dire state, or practice euthanasia, and this alone is controversial as the so-called “merciful form of death” has moral consequences and places people in difficult situations. Medical system must improve for the long term and have more interested in family practice so that the elderly can get the care that they need.

While medical and technological advantages are good, we must question at what point do we go too far? More and more are too frail to leave home, hiring caretakers that are present on the hour. A whole new culture of caretakers is developing, with most of them being Hispanic or black. As Leon Kass points in Living Old, families now have less children, and geographically dispersed, so now you are no longer certain if your closed ones can take care of you, especially when the time for care has gone from months of even decades for the elderly today.

Our culture by definition is youth oriented. As life expectancy increases and technology improves, the pressure on government increases for making supportive, and often expensive policies. The elderly population issue has become more complex, as they are now more diverse in race, history, and economy in so many levels. The change in American families and female roles are reshaping the youth population which must be thought of when thinking about the care of the future. Pressure for improving issues like health care and social security in this nation will continue to escalate. One must think about how far one will allow the state to get involved in their private lives. As it slowly turns into a national crisis, policy makers face the challenge of incorporating various aspects of the issue to assist the elderly of this nation.

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