The New Old Age

My gen­er­a­tion fought for re­pro­duc­tive rights and racial eq­uity. Now it’s time for baby boomers to tackle ag­ing

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by San­dra Martin

My gen­er­a­tion fought for re­pro­duc­tive rights and racial eq­uity. Now it’s time for baby boomers to tackle ag­ing

Iam five years older than my mother was when she died of breast can­cer, in 1982. She was sixty-five, which now seems merely mid­dle aged. I don’t know what ex­pec­ta­tions she had about ag­ing; I doubt she had any, es­pe­cially af­ter her di­ag­no­sis, but I know what mine are. A while ago, I con­sulted an on­line life-ex­pectancy cal­cu­la­tor, which pre­dicted that I am go­ing to live un­til I am ninety-eight. Yikes. If I cut down on wine and up my aer­o­bics and strength train­ing, I may be­come a cen­te­nar­ian — the fastest grow­ing de­mo­graphic in Cana­dian so­ci­ety. Longevity is the new re­al­ity and I am in the van­guard of an emerg­ing de­mo­graphic trend. Life ex­pectancy soared from sev­enty-two for men and sev­enty-nine for women in 1982 — the year my mother died — to eighty for men and eighty-four for women in 2015. I’m not afraid of dy­ing. The le­gal­iza­tion of med­i­cally as­sisted dy­ing means that death is los­ing its sting, at least for the ter­mi­nally ill. What ter­ri­fies me is old age. What’s the point of longevity if I run out of money or be­come so­cially iso­lated be­cause I am deaf and im­mo­bile and have out­lived all my friends? Or, far worse, if I am plagued with myr­iad con­di­tions that rob me of cog­ni­tion and au­ton­omy and force me to linger like last week’s left­overs be­cause I will no longer be com­pe­tent enough to re­quest an as­sisted death? That boomers like me aren’t leav­ing this mor­tal coil any time soon also has costly im­pli­ca­tions for younger gen­er­a­tions, which will have to sup­port us in our dotage ei­ther as care­givers or with their taxes, or both. Three years ago, we hit a tip­ping point: for the first time, there were more Cana­di­ans over the age of sixty-five than un­der fif­teen — 16 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, or al­most 6 mil­lion peo­ple. And that mas­sive older seg­ment was grow­ing four times faster than the pop­u­la­tion at large. If that trend con­tin­ues, de­mog­ra­phers pre­dict that by 2031, the year the ear­li­est boomers turn eighty-five, nearly one-quar­ter of Cana­di­ans will be sixty-five or older. Will we as a so­ci­ety have the med­i­cal, so­cial, and fi­nan­cial re­sources to cope? My blus­ter­ing, swag­ger­ing co­hort of more than 8 mil­lion chil­dren born be­tween 1946 and 1965 has el­bowed and barged its way through ev­ery stage of life. Lifestyle changes — less smok­ing, more ex­er­cise — and ad­vances in medicine, tech­nol­ogy, and sci­ence mean that can­cer and car­dio­vas­cu­lar ill­nesses, the acute killers of my mother’s gen­er­a­tion, will be­come chronic dis­eases for many baby boomers. The down­side is that we are likely to live long enough to de­velop dis­eases of the mind and brain. In 2016, there were an es­ti­mated 564,000 Cana­di­ans liv­ing with de­men­tia; so far, there is no cure and no ef­fec­tive treat­ment. That num­ber is ex­pected to reach 937,000 by 2031. But there is an­other sce­nario. Many eighty-five-year-olds are do­ing just fine as they hob­ble into their nineties and be­yond. These are the lucky ones: the peo­ple who have won the ge­netic, ge­o­graph­i­cal, and so­cio-eco­nomic lot­ter­ies. Be­sides good for­tune, some of us — no­body knows how many — are learn­ing the se­crets of suc­cess­ful ag­ing, ei­ther in­tu­itively or by dili­gent ap­pli­ca­tion. For­get bridge, crosswords, and cruises: the best and most con­sis­tent ad­vice for a se­cure and healthy old age in­volves long-term fi­nan­cial plan­ning, a ca­pac­ity for in­de­pen­dence, car­dio­vas­cu­lar ex­er­cise, min­i­mal con­sump­tion of sugar and al­co­hol, rest­ful and brain-cleans­ing sleep, and stim­u­lat­ing ac­tiv­i­ties to build up our cog­ni­tive re­serves. How much fun is that? That’s not the right ques­tion. In­stead, ask your­self: Why should old age be easy? Achiev­ing suc­cess in ev­ery other life stage — from toi­let train­ing to earn­ing a liveli­hood to rais­ing a fam­ily — re­quires grit, prac­tice, stress, and flex­i­bil­ity. That’s why no­body wants to be young again. It was hard enough the first time. As boomers em­bark on old age, we need to re­make the im­age of Free­dom 55 and all the other non­sense that has been spewed about the “golden years” and learn how

to forge more ex­pan­sive ideas about re­tire­ment, in­de­pen­dence, hous­ing, and ways of liv­ing.

Re­tire­ment is a rel­a­tively new con­cept. Ger­man chan­cel­lor Otto von Bis­marck is cred­ited with in­vent­ing pub­lic pen­sions for the el­derly in the 1880s. Be­fore then, peo­ple worked till they died or un­til a younger gen­er­a­tion of­fered them a rock­ing chair by the fire in the fam­ily home. The new-fan­gled pen­sion was not a risky ini­tia­tive, be­cause the plan pro­vided for or­di­nary ci­ti­zens over the age of sev­enty at a time when life ex­pectancy was around forty. Fifty years later, in the mid­dle of the Great De­pres­sion, Amer­i­can pres­i­dent Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt signed the So­cial Se­cu­rity Act. It was geared to a re­tire­ment age of sixty-five; life ex­pectancy for men was sixty. His­tor­i­cally, we worked un­til we dropped. In Canada, the Old Age Pen­sions Act, pro­vid­ing a means-tested pen­sion for those sev­enty years and older, was in­tro­duced in 1927. Life ex­pectancy at the time was sixty-six for men and sev­enty-one for women. The Cana­dian Pen­sion Plan was en­acted in 1965. The CPP, which re­quires all work­ing peo­ple aged eigh­teen to sixty-five to con­trib­ute a por­tion of their earn­ings to a gov­ern­ment-ad­min­is­tered fund, has been mod­i­fied over the decades, es­pe­cially af­ter a cri­sis in the late 1990s when pen­sion ex­perts pre­dicted that the de­mo­graphic bulge rep­re­sented by ag­ing boomers could bank­rupt the sys­tem for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Be­sides the in­creased life ex­pectancy and sheer num­ber of boomers head­ing for re­tire­ment, the birth rate had been drop­ping for gen­er­a­tions. In my mother’s era, women had an av­er­age of 3.6 chil­dren. Those days are long gone. The last time Cana­dian women pro­duced an av­er­age of 2.1 chil­dren — the num­ber needed for the pop­u­la­tion to re­place it­self — was 1971. To­day, the fer­til­ity rate is only 1.6. Those fig­ures mean that the ra­tio of what we tra­di­tion­ally call re­tired folks to work­ing stiffs has nearly dou­bled over the past forty years; eco­nomic think tank the C.D. Howe In­sti­tute es­ti­mates it will go up by an equal amount over the next forty years. That de­mo­graphic im­bal­ance, ac­cord­ing to C.D. Howe, “puts pres­sure on liv­ing stan­dards, damp­ens the growth of gov­ern­ment rev­enue and presents chal­lenges” to pub­lic pen­sions and health care — the ben­e­fits that ag­ing boomers like me will be gob­bling up with gusto. The ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion is to in­crease im­mi­gra­tion, be­cause our poli­cies favour peo­ple who are young and hard work­ing and in­clined to have chil­dren. But im­mi­gra­tion alone is not enough, ac­cord­ing to Wil­liam Rob­son of C. D. Howe. He ar­gues that we also need to work longer, by rais­ing the nor­mal re­tire­ment age, and bal­ance life ex­pectancy against im­me­di­ate fi­nan­cial needs. (Some­body who re­tires at sixty-five can claim a max­i­mum of $1,134 in CPP a month; that sum is nearly 50 per­cent higher for a per­son who re­tires at sev­enty.) Lots of work­place pen­sions, where they do ex­ist, are not as se­cure as they should be. The fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008, his­tor­i­cally low in­ter­est rates, and overly gen­er­ous ex­ten­sions from reg­u­la­tors mean that many de­fined-ben­e­fits pen­sions are un­der­funded, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 study pre­pared by the Cana­dian Cen­tre for Pol­icy Al­ter­na­tives. It found that thirty-nine of the sixty com­pa­nies listed on the S&P/TS X main­tained de­fined-ben­e­fit pen­sions plans, but only nine of them were fully funded. At the same time, many of these com­pa­nies have been in­creas­ing share­holder pay­outs sub­stan­tially. “In 2016,” the au­thors state, “Canada’s largest com­pa­nies paid out four times more to share­hold­ers than it would have cost to fully fund their pen­sion plans.” With­out stronger reg­u­la­tion, these com­pa­nies are gam­bling with the re­tire­ment sav­ings of their em­ploy­ees. And that’s only if you’re lucky enough to have a pen­sion: many of my younger friends, and those in the arts and cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties, never ac­crued a com­pany pen­sion plan or set aside the max­i­mum an­nual con­tri­bu­tions in a reg­is­tered re­tire­ment sav­ings plan. Those are the peo­ple I worry about — in­clud­ing my own grown chil­dren. My son and daugh­ter are in their thir­ties. They both have jobs with ben­e­fits and are in long-term re­la­tion­ships, but their part­ners are self-em­ployed, which means they have to choose be­tween in­vest­ing in their com­pa­nies, hav­ing chil­dren, or set­ting aside money ev­ery month in re­tire­ment sav­ings plans. The good news is that the CPP is sol­vent: right now, it pays out 100 cents

per promised dol­lar, says Rob­son. The worst prog­no­sis is that in an­other twen­ty­five years, it might be ninety cents on the dol­lar, but “it won’t be zero.” And yet Wanda Mor­ris, vice-pres­i­dent of ad­vo­cacy for the Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Re­tired Per­sons, warns that no­body should as­sume that the CPP alone will guar­an­tee a com­fort­able re­tire­ment: even for those who can claim the max­i­mum amount, it prob­a­bly won’t be enough to live on. The key is plan­ning for the fu­ture — a long one. If you’re for­tu­nate enough to have a sta­ble re­la­tion­ship, that can also help — if only be­cause hav­ing a spouse means you can keep an eye on each other’s de­cline, share ex­penses, split in­come for tax pur­poses, and (even­tu­ally) claim sur­vivor ben­e­fits. Af­ter nearly fifty years, I am still mar­ried to the fa­ther of my now grown chil­dren. Blame it on a lack of imag­i­na­tion if you will, but the fact that my hus­band and I are still a cou­ple means that we haven’t had to di­vide our as­sets or sell the fam­ily home and split the pro­ceeds. Even so, ev­ery­thing de­pends on the volatil­ity of the stock mar­ket, our longevity, and our cog­ni­tive and phys­i­cal health. If one, or both, of us needs full-time care for a decade or so, we may out­live our money — a spec­tre that haunts me in the mid­dle of the night. Life-in­sur­ance com­pa­nies and pub­lic-pol­icy an­a­lysts keep com­ing up with longevity-in­sur­ance plans to mit­i­gate our fear of be­ing des­ti­tute in ex­treme old age. One pro­posal, called Liv­ing In­come for the El­derly (its acro­nym is LIFE) — a vol­un­tary, gov­ern­men­tled, pooled risk fund — is in­cit­ing chat­ter on the in­vest­ment pages. The scheme, de­vised by Bon­nie-jeanne Mac­don­ald, the se­nior re­search fel­low at Ry­er­son Univer­sity’s Na­tional In­sti­tute on Age­ing, calls for amended leg­is­la­tion to al­low peo­ple to in­vest in a de­ferred an­nu­ity at sixty-five that would start pay­ing out at age eighty-five. But (like the old no­tion of a ton­tine) the longevity jack­pot de­pends on out­liv­ing the other in­vestors: if you die be­fore eighty-five, your con­tri­bu­tion would be used to pay out ben­e­fits to those who live longer. And, for many peo­ple, that is the rub. So far, there isn’t a large ap­petite for de­ferred an­nu­ities, maybe be­cause “peo­ple don’t want to look like chumps if they die and never col­lect any­thing,” notes Rob­son. “But what dif­fer­ence does it make, be­cause they’ll be dead.”

There are worse things than be­ing dead, as many suf­fer­ing pa­tients told me as I was re­search­ing med­i­cal as­sis­tance in dy­ing for my book A Good Death. Be­ing phys­i­cally main­tained long af­ter their cog­ni­tive pow­ers had been ex­hausted was high on their worse-than-dead list, an attitude I share. Like many of them, I as­pire to mem­ber­ship in the Elect, not in that old reli­gious mean­ing, as in cho­sen for sal­va­tion, but in the sec­u­lar sense of a su­per­ager, peo­ple over eighty whose mem­o­ries are as sharp and re­ten­tive as those of a much younger co­hort. Re­search on su­per­agers is in its in­fancy, but Lisa Barrett, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at North­east­ern Univer­sity, says that join­ing that ex­clu­sive group is about more than in­her­it­ing good genes or en­joy­ing fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity: based on the avail­able sci­en­tific ev­i­dence, a lot of it has to do with so­cial in­ter­ac­tions and per­sis­tent men­tal and phys­i­cal ex­er­cise. (Doc­tors sug­gest, for ex­am­ple, that a car­dio work­out three times a week is es­sen­tial if I want to guard against de­men­tia. That’s my idea of tor­ture.) Lots of sci­en­tific stud­ies, Barrett has found, show that when peo­ple en­gage in any kind of task that re­quires ef­fort, such as solv­ing a hard prob­lem or re­mem­ber­ing names of peo­ple they have just met, they ex­pe­ri­ence an “un­pleas­ant feel­ing.” Nor­mally what peo­ple do, es­pe­cially as they get older, is “di­vest them­selves” of ac­tiv­i­ties that make them feel that way. They stop do­ing the hard stuff. But “feel­ing bad is good for you,” Barrett tells me — not all the time but oc­ca­sion­ally. Us­ing ex­er­cise as an ex­am­ple, she says that “feel­ing like crap isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a clue that what you are do­ing is bad for you or that you should stop.” Rather, that’s the point when de­ter­mi­na­tion and tenac­ity come in. “On top of sleep and nutri­tion and ex­er­cise,” Barrett says, “we need to stay en­gaged so­cially and to keep chal­leng­ing our­selves” be­cause the ten­dency to dis­en­gage when it gets tough “could add to the bur­den of cog­ni­tive de­cline in an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion.” That doesn’t mean we can’t still have fun, but it might be a good idea to change our ex­pec­ta­tions about what we want to do in re­tire­ment — or whether to re­tire at all. In 2013, the Vanier In­sti­tute of the Fam­ily re­ported that 37 per­cent of Cana­di­ans who planned to work past age sixty-five said they would do so be­cause they wanted to, not be­cause they needed the money. That de­sire to stay in­volved is one of the rea­sons, along with poor fi­nan­cial plan­ning and trau­matic bad luck sce­nar­ios, that labour mar­ket par­tic­i­pa­tion of se­niors has more than dou­bled in re­cent years, from 6 to 7 per­cent in 2000 to 14 per­cent in 2017. For those who do re­tire, stay­ing cog­ni­tively fit can be a chal­lenge — and that re­quires learn­ing to cul­ti­vate in­de­pen­dence: even those of us who are in cou­ples can’t just rely on our part­ners for men­tal en­gage­ment. Fig­ur­ing out new dy­nam­ics is es­pe­cially tricky in a long and com­pat­i­ble re­la­tion­ship. You al­ready know how to fin­ish each other’s sen­tences, how much spice to put in the curry, and what sub­jects are guar­an­teed to end in an ar­gu­ment. Once the chil­dren are grown and off the pay­roll, and the tyranny of din­ner is noth­ing more than a bad mem­ory that gets restaged at fam­ily cel­e­bra­tions, it is easy to cud­dle up with your part­ner and nes­tle to­gether like a cou­ple of an­cient tab­bies eat­ing take­out while binge­ing on Net­flix. In the same way that we learned we can’t de­lay child-bear­ing for­ever, we must learn we can’t put off pre­par­ing for old age. We need to train for it, and that means learn­ing to live in a new, in­ter­con­nected way by ex­pand­ing our cir­cles to in­clude peo­ple of dif­fer­ent ages, in­ter­ests, and back­grounds. When my moth­erin-law, who lived on the other side of the coun­try, was wid­owed at ninety, she adamantly re­fused to move into a re­tire­ment home. “Too full of old peo­ple,” she com­plained. In­stead, she hired stu­dents from the local univer­sity as com­pan­ions to visit with her two evenings a week, and she

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