Harvard Health Letter

A good old age

Two books on aging and caregiving point out the problems with American old age and how we might improve it.

Baby boomers, who used not to trust anyone over 30 and worried about being needed at 64, are about to turn 65 in record numbers. In 2011, the oldest members of the post–World War II generation will hit the traditional age for retirement. And by 2030 — not so terribly far away — they'll create a demographic bulge of some 70 million over-65ers, or roughly one in every five Americans.

Many have already gotten some idea of what lies ahead by taking care of their aging parents. Caregiving is the too-bland term for what is often a lonely, emotionally draining, and financially costly ordeal. Demographers have a way of measuring caregiving called the parent support ratio, which can be used as a rough guide for estimating the number of middle-aged people responsible for aging parents. In 1980, the ratio suggests, 7% of middle-aged Americans had older parents to take care of. By 2000, it was 10%, and by 2050, when all living baby boomers will be at least 85, it will be 30%.

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