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