For many, living the dream means living to a ripe old age—in great health and financial comfort till a pain-free last breath.
Unfortunately, that dream is not in the cards for most of us. What to do?
As we learn in today’s thoughtful interview with Gillian Ranson, there’s no such thing as a fail safe plan to growing old, but there’s a few adjustments you can make that will have a positive effect. Foremost, start thinking about it right now, picture it in your mind. If you feel fear, try to understand why, and perhaps seek some wise counsel.
In anticipation of the release of her Front-Wave Boomers: Growing (Very) Old, Staying Connected, and Reimagining Aging, Gillian agreed to take some questions from Melissa Wuske, and we’ll admit to feeling a little more hopeful about that final ride toward the sunset.
What are the biggest surprises and challenges boomers are facing at this point in their lives and as they look ahead?
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the realization that we are approaching very old age. We are coming to see that we might not be able to continue living the way we did in our sixties and early seventies—but many of us can’t imagine (or don’t want to think about) alternatives. Alternatives will inevitably mean some loss of autonomy and independence. That loss is what most of us fear.
In fairness to us aging boomers, there’s a sense in which we’ve been discouraged from looking ahead. By the time we reached our sixties, aging had been positively reframed—rightly so, given advances in medical science and technology that allows us to live longer and healthier lives. We no longer thought that old age began at sixty-five, when most of us retired from paid work. Media images have reflected this transition. The so-called “Third Age” (say, the sixties and early seventies) has been reimagined as a time to enjoy family, friends, leisure pursuits, travel. But this focus on the (healthy, happy) Third Age not only takes no account of all those people who, for many reasons, are not experiencing it as healthy and happy. It has also come at the expense of any discussion of the “Fourth Age” that will follow. UK gerontologists Paul Higgs and Chris Gilleard have called the Fourth Age a “black hole” that we know little about and are not anxious to explore.
In your research, did you find any differentiators between those who feel prepared for what lies ahead and those who feel more trepidation?
Those who felt prepared for what might be ahead were usually those with financial resources and solid social support. Some of them were consummate planners, who had already anticipated more appropriate living arrangements, thought about home help, and so on. But there were also those who hadn’t done the planning, but were not feeling trepidation about the future—probably because they were confident that the resources they had in place would see them through. Social connections in particular were critical, as shields against what I came to call tipping points—those unforeseen events (often health-related) that happened even to the best prepared.
I saw trepidation mostly in those whose living situations were more precarious. Some were managing on very low incomes, often with government pensions their only source of support. (That alone would have implications for future housing options.) But sole reliance on government pensions usually signaled a working past that might also have been low-paid, if not tenuous—and the possibility of poorer health and other deficits as a spill-over consequence. Perhaps the most extreme example was Cynthia, one of the women I interviewed, who said simply: “I live in poverty, social isolation, with declining health, mental illness … There’s no one who will care for me.” For others, it wasn’t just a matter of having nobody available to take on some caregiving. It was having nobody available to advocate on their behalf. Leslie, another participant living alone, with poor health and no money, described this as one of her biggest fears.
How have you seen the importance of generational identity and community through your research? How do similarities and differences across the generations help and hinder community and identity?
One of the risks of aging is that as we get older our community connections tend to be with people who are roughly the same age as us. In a sense, we self-segregate, putting ourselves into an ageist silo. Yet connections to generations other than our own, especially those younger than our own, are essential for many reasons, the most important of which is that they keep us connected to the wider world. Those of us with children and grandchildren we are close to have intergenerational ties built in, but we can’t exploit or overuse these family ties. And they aren’t enough to build the kind of intergenerational communities we need. There are similarities and differences within, as well as between generations. Age shouldn’t be the only differentiator. Some of those similarities and differences can allow people to connect across the generations and form rewarding relationships in the process.
In my research, I found many examples of ongoing and sustaining intergenerational connections, at both the individual and community level. At the individual level, I think about Diana, 73 when we met, who rented out rooms in her home to international graduate students. She showed me a wonderful video of “the gang” dancing with her in the kitchen as they prepared a meal. At the community level, I think of Bonnie, also 73 when we met, who lived in a co-housing community. All nineteen households had their own completely self-contained units, but shared common space, including a community kitchen and dining room. They also shared a commitment to community support. Ages of residents ranged from the mid-teens to the mid-eighties. Shared interests also brought the generations together; Ursula’s professional life in music put her in touch with many younger people, including students whom she mentored—and who helped her too. Anne noted the “tons of young knitters” getting involved in her knitting community. Paul and his wife were active in a volunteer grandparent organization.
COVID vastly impacted your research process and deeply enriched your findings. How would you summarize its effects on your research process, you as a researcher, and what you discovered?
COVID changed everything! I had completed interviews with the hundred-plus participants in the project by December 2019 and was all set to start writing the book in early 2020. Then in March 2020 the pandemic was declared. It took a devastating early toll on our elders, especially those in long-term care. Care of the very old began to receive the kind of attention that would surely speak to those front-wave baby boomers who might be next in line to need it. Local responses to the pandemic were likely to shine a very bright light on the strengths and weaknesses, resources and deficits, in the homes and families and neighborhoods of all the people I had spoken with. It might in some ways foreshadow what was to come, further down the road. I wondered if the material I had gathered in 2019 might now be telling only part of the story. It seemed important to add a second goal to the research: to find out what lessons about aging might be learned from the pandemic. So instead of sitting down and writing, I started a year’s worth of follow-up contact with my participants.
Working over an extended period with people who were deeply interested in the research, at a time when many of our regular social contacts were off limits due to lockdowns, was a richly rewarding experience for me as a researcher. My participants gave me so much that I began to think of them as a team, helping me make sense of what I was seeing and hearing. I started to call the book that was the project’s end product “our” book.
What I discovered was that COVID did indeed change how people were thinking about (very) old age. In particular, they were resolved not to end their days in long-term care settings. They wanted to age in place, in their own homes if possible. This has led to much more discussion, at both personal and policy levels, about how that can happen. One major insight is that we will need many more home care workers, and we will need to value them much more highly than we currently do.
One prevalent phenomenon you noted was the rise of ageism during COVID, some of it masked as compassion. Can you give an example of ageism you’ve seen and unpack the damage it does?
One version of ageism during the early days of the pandemic, when the death rate among older people was soaring, took the form of repugnant hashtags (like “Boomer Remover,” “Elder Repeller,” and “Boomer Doomer”) to express antagonistic stereotypes about older adults on social media. But closer to home than ageist rants on social media was another, seemingly kinder version. Public health concerns about the particular vulnerability of “seniors” or “the elderly” could be seen as caring and protective. But the assumption that everyone over a particular chronological age was equally susceptible to serious health consequences from COVID was also ageist (as well as being a dangerous simplification). And injunctions to be caring of those vulnerable “seniors” could also have ageist consequences, if help was offered on the (unchecked) assumption that recipients were unable to help themselves. (In fact, it was frequently older adults who were doing the helping.) This form of “compassionate” ageism is ongoing. It has the damaging effect of perpetuating public perceptions of older people as somehow all the same—sweet, but needy, and not able to give back.
What’s the biggest gift you experienced through your interviews?
It’s hard to single out the “biggest gift” because there were so many, and they were all linked. I’ve already noted how rewarding it was to develop connections through the course of the project with so many people who had so much to teach me about aging and who were so willing to share their experiences. It was also rewarding to recognize that their stories would be meaningful to others, that the book came together at a time when information about eldercare and aging was sorely needed.
What advice do you have for other generations who are walking alongside boomers?
I’ve never been too big on giving advice—offering “food for thought” has always been my preference! But if advice is what’s needed, the main thing I’d want those other generations to do is drop the labels and the stereotypes. Boomers are not all the same. They are individuals, with life experience worth hearing about, and maybe learning from. If there are boomers in your life, get to know them as individuals worth getting to know.
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