Making Gray Matter

May/June 2002

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There's a lot of talk in the media and on Capitol Hill about the growing ranks of America’s elderly, but shopworn stereotypes about senior citizens could hinder effective policy-making. Knowing there are many shades of gray in the over-65 population, Stanford’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender assembled a forum of 13 experts to identify the key social and political challenges of an aging society.

Following a yearlong series of sessions at Stanford and based on their own decades of research, the scholars drew up a consensus report, “Aging in the 21st Century,” earlier this year. They paint some surprising silver linings among the storm clouds.

For example, the report challenges the notion of growing old as an unremitting slide toward frailty and dementia. Today’s elderly are in better health than their counterparts in the early ’60s, and “the reduction in disability rates continued at a steeper rate from 1994 through 1999,” the report says. Moreover, 60 percent of people over 80 live independently, and studies show that practical problem-solving abilities remain as sharp in the elderly as in the middle-aged. While cognitive impairment strikes those over 65 more than any other segment, the scholars assert that that age group also includes “the wisest and richest people in our society.” And a majority “are at least as satisfied with their lives as are younger people.” In sum, the experts agree, “older people are living added years in better physical and mental health and with more freedom from pain than ever before.”

Yet there is no such thing as an “average old person,” and the hardships of aging afflict some groups disproportionately. The report notes that women are mostly responsible for an estimated annual 120 million hours of unpaid care of the elderly—work worth $45 to $94 billion if credited by Social Security. Women frequently use all their resources to cover their husbands’ last medical expenses, then, as widows, have their Social Security benefits cut by a third and sink into poverty. Married African-American women suffer a “triple jeopardy”: they are more likely than whites to provide unpaid care for family, earn less during their working lives and lose their spouses at a younger age.

Policy-makers must take such disparities into account, says psychology professor Laura Carstensen, former director of the institute. “If people are talking about the wrong questions, you can be sure they won’t get the right answers.” To that end, the report has gone to every member of Congress as well as state and local officials and professionals.

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