A New Take on Old Age
More and more people over 65 are living healthier, more active lives with all the perks of their younger years — fulfilling work and, yes, romance.
By Bettijane Levine 04/03/2014
Just a few decades ago we stopped describing people as “old,” and the phrase “senior citizen” became popular. Now, even that sounds fusty and condescending for the burgeoning group — people who are increasingly active and productive throughout their seventies, eighties and beyond — who will soon account for 26 percent of the country’s population.
Sure, some people become mentally or physically incapacitated as their dotage encroaches. But the large numbers of those who remain reasonably healthy and active long into old age are a growing dynamic force in the nation’s social, economic and sexual warp and weft.
America has yet to calculate the eventual impact of all this, although our language is changing to better acknowledge this vibrant new cohort. The term “old age home” has all but disappeared. Instead, we now have “independent living” and “assisted living” communities — places where older people move, not to die, but to enjoy more amenities and a sense of community while starting a new chapter in life. Many of them are luxurious, much like living in a fine hotel, with spacious private apartments or homes, maid service, gourmet dining and elegantly appointed public areas.
The word “retiree” is starting to disappear as well, because it’s a passive-sounding leftover from the era when people were “pensioned out,” living their few remaining years doing nothing very productive. Although older people still retire from full-time jobs, often involuntarily, most are too energetic and intellectually active to retreat from their lifelong occupations and interests. They tend not to define themselves as retirees, preferring to describe their latest ventures and adventures. Indeed, older Americans now form the nation’s biggest category of emerging entrepreneurs and are among the most sexually active age groups. More about all that later.
Even the term “senior citizen” may be on its way out. “It’s falling out of favor,” says Dawneen Lorance, executive director at Villa Gardens, an upscale senior community in Pasadena. “I’ve recently been hearing the term ‘older Americans’ used instead.”
Corporate America tends to remain ageist, often considering job applicants over 50 to be “over the hill,” according to CNN Money. But don’t tell the country’s 79 million baby boomers that old age starts at 50 — or even 65. A Pew Research trend survey revealed that the typical boomer believes old age doesn’t even begin until a person reaches his or her mid-seventies. Not surprisingly, 61 percent of boomers also say they feel nine years younger than their chronological age.
Boomers, who started reaching 65 in 2011, will redefine work’s relationship to aging, the Pew researchers concluded. Many older Americans have already begun sidestepping corporate ageism by starting independent ventures of their own. In February, the Senate Special Committee on Aging and the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee held a joint hearing focusing on entrepreneurism and older Americans. Senators learned that Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 comprise the nation’s fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs. And those 65 and over are increasingly starting businesses using technology that allows them to work at their own pace, from wherever they want, making use of the experience they’ve acquired over the years. A recent MetLife Foundation study revealed that about 25 million people — up to age 70 — expressed interest in starting their own business or nonprofit within the next five to 10 years. That includes the new wave of what’s being called “artisanal capitalism.” Bay Area resident Pearl Malkin, age 90, launched her craftsy Happy Canes business online, via Etsy, after raising seed money for the venture from a Kickstarter campaign.
Lorance, director of the Villa Gardens senior community, says that some of her residents continue to work, “although it’s not a huge trend there.” And Susanna Klein, executive director of the luxury Fair Oaks by Regency Park senior community in Pasadena, says she knows of at least one resident, a psychoanalyst, who continues to see her regular clients.
Arroyo Monthly spoke with the psychoanalyst, Dr. Sonia Thomas, who says she moved to Fair Oaks about a year ago after selling her home. “This is a luxurious life for me, because all my needs are met here,” she says. “It’s really a lovely place. I’ve even been given an office to use here in the complex, where I see a small number of patients in the afternoons.” Thomas is in her seventies, “but I certainly don’t feel it. In my business age is not a factor. You can work as long as you can think and can help.” Thomas says that her life in the independent living community “hasn’t altered that much from my life in my own home. I have my car, I come and go. I get my hair done, do all the usual stuff. I love theater and movies and I go just as much now as I did before.”
As more boomers reaching 65 still feel healthy and vigorous — and perhaps also financially challenged — there’s bound to be a surge of successful independent enterprise that proves age is no barrier to productive living for those who remain unimpaired.
And the large numbers of vigorous, relatively healthy older Americans have led to another sexual revolution of sorts. Older single Americans — divorced people, widows and widowers — are seeking relationships in increasing numbers. Some take to online senior dating sites like ourtime.com, while others move to senior communities with the expressed hope of finding new love. “Sex and love are part of life from beginning to the end,” says Klein. “And here at Fair Oaks they flourish. I’ve been here for five years and have seen several romantic relationships develop and endure.”
Do these couples ever move in together? “Maybe just for the night. It’s not really necessary,” Klein says, since they share meals together and enjoy daily life in the many public areas.
“Sparks do fly here at Villa Gardens,” echoes Lorance. “Whatever goes on behind closed doors is private and nobody else’s business. But we definitely see connections made between our residents, and that’s because you’re really no different at 80 than when you were 50.”
At Regency Park Astoria senior residences in Pasadena, says Executive Director Dyan Summerell, “We have an engaged couple who met here and live here right now, and they say they plan to marry.”
Sex among oldsters, once a taboo subject — many believed old people didn’t engage — is now a very hot topic. With more years left and more zest for living them, the aged seem to be having sex in increasing numbers and frequency. Perhaps helping that along are the cosmetic innovations that have emerged, along with the medical advances that help them live longer, more energetic lives. Penile, breast, tooth and hair implants are helping them look as young as they feel. Viagra, Cialis and similar pharmaceuticals help alleviate erectile dysfunction due to old age. And use of vacuum erection systems (known as penile pumps) has apparently risen significantly, with costs covered by Medicare. (Medicare has reportedly been overpaying for them, spending $172 million from 2006 to 2011 at double the retail cost.) For women, there’s vaginal rejuvenation surgery (a recently introduced gynecological subspecialty) and new pharmaceuticals like Osphena, which relieves painful intercourse caused by vaginal aging after menopause.
It’s good news — except that most sexually active seniors apparently haven’t heard about safe sex. And if they have, they don’t think it applies to them. They’re too old to get pregnant, and they grew up in an era when the very word “sex” was verboten — and the term “safe sex” hadn’t been coined yet. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed a stunning statistic: In 2011 and 2012,
2.2 million Medicare beneficiaries received screenings for sexually transmitted diseases, and more than 66,000 received HIV tests. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show surprising increases in S.T.D.s among older Americans. From 2007 to 2011, chlamydeous infections in people 65 and older increased by 31 percent, and syphilis rose by 52 percent. The numbers are similar to those for 20-to-24-year-olds in the same time frame.
Since pregnancy isn’t a concern, the older guys don’t use condoms and the older women don’t worry about it. This has to change, experts say, because it’s not just unhealthy for the social security generation, it’s also costing the rest of us taxpayers too much money in Medicare doctors’ bills.
The bottom line is this: If you’re not yet 65, you can probably look forward to relatively exciting golden years. Your only task is to stay healthy and perhaps accumulate enough money to live in one of those fabulous independent living communities, where the monthly tariff includes your elegant private residence, daily gourmet dining room, maid service — and if you’re single, perhaps romance and some (protected) eldersex.