Why it’s a bad time to be old and what you can do about it

Last fall I gave a speech titled “It ain’t easy being a little old lady,”  and got lots of laughs.

But the things happening to old people these days aren’t funny. They’re sad or scary or alarming. Things like these:

The global demographic imbalance

In nearly every country in the world, there are too many old people in proportion to young and middle-aged people. This demographic imbalance is often chalked up to the fact that people are living longer than they used to. And so they are, but several other factors are even more significant.

One has been a substantial increase in the life expectancy at birth. In the U.S., for example, between 1900 and 1950—due to advances in controlling infectious childhood diseases—infants who survived to the age of 20 could expect to live to the age of 66. And those who lived to 60 could expect to live another 15 years.

Another factor was a decline in the birthrate. Taken together, they have caused a demographic imbalance. It’s not a case of too many old people but of too few young people. The problem arises from a tendency to see old people as an enormous, unproductive, and unhealthy millstone around the national neck.

Great uncertainty about the economy

The financial collapse in September, 2008 and the associated decline in property values was catastrophic for millions of  people. It hit close to home. In what turned out to be remarkably bad timing, I retired that year at the end of July.

Within weeks, the economy collapsed, and I, along with millions of others, lost a substantial amount in my 401(k) account. Living in Seattle at the time, I was stunned to follow news accounts of the failure of Washington Mutual Bank—the largest bank failure in U.S. history.

While people of all ages were affected, those at or near retirement age were in greatest jeopardy with little or no time to rebuilt their retirement nest egg.

The recent Congressional debate on the budget deficit debate, the subsequent downgrading of the U.S. credit rating by S&P, and the wild gyrations in financial markets that followed have caused additional financial uncertainty and losses in the value of investments. (Although it appears that things are settling down a bit now.)

Too few jobs for people who want to work, especially if they’re old

An obvious strategy for coping with financial uncertainly and decline in the value of your investments would be to work longer than you had planned. However, following the economic collapse in the fall of 2008, many people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s were laid off, and have since applied for job after job without success. Some were forced to begin collecting Social Security at age 60 which means receiving smaller monthly payments than if they’d been able to work until “full retirement age.”

It’s true that—with unemployment so high—there are fewer jobs to be had. But older workers are clearly having a much harder time finding work than are younger ones or recent graduates.

If you read print and online articles and forums these days, you’ll be struck that companies seem to have convinced themselves that job experience is a drawback. They want “people with fresh skills,” even if those skills are so fresh that those who possess them are veritable virgins when it comes to actual experience on the job.

True story
Several years ago, I talked to a very-experienced man in Seattle who’d been laid off from his job and replaced by a younger inexperienced man. The company soon realized that youth and fresh skills don’t necessarily trump relevant experience, so it hired the first man back as a consultant to teach the younger one how to do the job.

Exhorbitant health-care costs

Millions and millions of old people will need increasingly expensive health care. The costs of providing health-care for those with Alzheimer’s Disease alone is terrifying. A recent issue of the “Johns Hopkins Memory Disorders Bulletin” discussed the current state of research funding for Alzheimer’s with Dr. Marilyn Albert, director of the Johns Hopkins Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Here’s part of that discussion:

Q: Based on research dollars and efforts being made today to find answers to the Alzheimer’s disease puzzle, what do you think is going to happen in 20 years if we continue the way we are going?

Dr. Albert:  There are currently 5.3 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Over the next 20 years, without any intervention to slow Alzheimer’s disease progress and with the aging of the American population, this figure is expected to increase by 50 percent. By 2050, it’s thought that more than 16 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s, and this could easily bankrupt Medicaid and Medicare.

Unrecognized and costly caregiver contributions

Dr. Albert added that,

Family and friends of Alzheimer’s disease patients provide more than 80 percent of caregiving. Unfortunately, in 20 years we will also have fewer people to lend a hand for caregiving duties, since the birth rate in this country has been going down. In 20 years, we are going to have a catastrophe on our hands. This is another reason why we urgently need better treatment to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Caregiving to family members with Alzheimer’s Disease comes at an immense cost financially and emotionally. The work is so exhausting, draining, and isolating that the caretakers themselves are at risk of dying before the person for whom they are caring.

Add in caregivers for sons and daughters severely wounded in war or for grandchildren whose parents are dysfunctional,  incarcerated, or otherwise unable to care for their own children, and you have an astronomical unpaid contribution by responsible, caring old people.

What can you do about it?

You can follow the news, go to meetings, write letters, donate to supportive causes, and engage in respectful discourse on issues affecting you, your children, and your grandchildren.

You can support win-win solutions and oppose punitive measures, such as efforts to punish innocent young immigrants brought to this country as toddlers.

And we can communicate and support one another. We can take advantage of the power of our numbers. We can vote.

What do you think? Are there other things we should do or need to do in this difficult, polarizing environment? What are the most helpful things we can do for one another, our children, and their children? I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, and comments. As always, respectful rebuttal is welcome. This is not a time for silence.

photo by 38322657@N08

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • viki debbarma 07/04/2016, 1:30 am

    This is really great post related to health, I do appreciate and always do respect elders…! thanx for sharing such a wonderful post…!

  • Jasianna Chaley 03/02/2012, 3:44 pm

    I agree. my mom is 80 yrs old and been hospitalized 5 x in 6 months.
    the social workers say she needs to leave her home. she will not. Now she is on hospice and hopefully will have the care she needs and can remain in her home of 60 years. I would like us to respect our elders more. it is because of them, we have what we have.
    Jasianna Chaley recently posted..Passion is the KeyMy Profile

    • Madeleine Kolb 03/02/2012, 5:27 pm

      Your mom’s situation seems to happen all too often. Being in and out of the hospital like that is risky. Hospice sounds like a much better alternative for her.

  • Jody 08/27/2011, 2:57 pm

    I suggest looking into VILLAGE TO VILLAGE projects for help to stay at home and the Green House Projects for alternatives.

  • Sharyn Dimmick 08/21/2011, 11:49 am


    This is my first look at your blog, It reads well and looks clean. My two cents worth on aging in current times is this anecdote: I was let go from my job of eleven and a half years in June 2010. In fourteen months I have not had one interview or phone call in response to my job inquiries. I am 53 and have a visible physical disability (cerebral palsy) and I live in California where unemployment is over twelve percent.

    • Madeleine Kolb 08/21/2011, 12:39 pm

      Sharyn, With unemployment so high in California, I imagine there are huge numbers of applications for every position which does become available. Given that, along with your age and disability, the job market is grim. What could be worse than needing to work, wanting to work, and not being able to get work? I wish I had some answers.

  • David Goldman 08/20/2011, 10:43 pm


    You bring up a lot of great points in this post. People do need to vote. Unfortunately many people are convinced that the government should not be “meddling” in their business. In other words when one side tries to incorporate programs to promote health care for all and to ensure that seniors continue to receive the benefits that they already have, others fight them tooth and nail. Many are convinced that the party in power is always the one that is doing nothing. We all have to stand up and fight for what we believe in.
    In addition to the points you make here about those at retirement age, there is a large group of aging adults in their 50s, who are not ready to retire. This group has been hit hard by the economic downturn by having a hard time fining jobs. Experience is almost frowned upon today. No real respect is given.
    Also, I would like to say that I have followed your comments on the A List bloggers club, including some good advice you have given me. So thanks for all that. And I really like your blog. I have been following it for a little bit and really like what you are talking about.
    David Goldman

    • Madeleine Kolb 08/21/2011, 12:10 pm

      David, how wonderful to hear from you.

      I completely agree about people in their 50s having a hard time finding jobs. In the aftermath of the economic collapse of late-2008, there was a lot of anger and perplexity among the near-old (as I call them above) who lost substantial amounts of money from their 401(k) accounts and other retirement funds.

      Again and again on various forums, people in this group said that they’d played by the rules; they’d worked hard, saved for retirement, and then had the rug pulled from under them. It adds insult to injury to portray the old or near-old as lazy, inept, over-the-hill, or otherwise incapable.

      Thank you also for your generous remark about my blog.

  • Afghan Music 08/20/2011, 6:32 pm

    Great post.

    I personally believe that we have abandoned our elders in this society of social media, technology and casual leisure.

    Healthcare surely is one of the top priorities for our older citizens…and the government is not doing much about it…instead they are spending billions every month in wars and aiding other countries.
    Afghan Music recently posted..Shafiq Mureed’s New Video: Da AfghanistanMy Profile

    • Madeleine Kolb 08/21/2011, 11:47 am

      I don’t know whether I’d use the word “abandoned,” but we’ve put many old and near-old (late-40s to mid-50s) people in a nearly untenable position. For example, to regard old people as “greedy geezers” (in the words of former Senator Alan Simpson) and then to discriminate against them when they apply for jobs puts them in a position of being damned-if-they-do/ damned-if-they don’t.

      However, your point is well-taken, and I appreciate your comment.