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STANFORD — The statistics are staggering: Over the next three decades, the number of people older than 65 in the United States will double from 40 million to 80 million.  It’s been called “elderquake” and “the silver tsunami.”

“Medicare and Social Security will be equal to the entire tax revenue of the country” by mid-century according to Stanford University President John Hennessy. Unless something changes, we are facing a future with “no money left for defense, no money for education, no money for research.”

Hennessy was one of six leaders from the worlds of business, law and academia engaged in a wide-ranging discussion during the fifth annual Roundtable “Generation Ageless: Longevity and the Boomers”at Stanford on Oct. 23, moderated by Tom Brokaw of NBC News.

Panelists said the widely ignored aspects of an aging population will affect every aspect of our lives – social, political and economic. 

According to Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, in less than a century, we have added 30 years to life expectancy, yet “we haven’t established new norms about life and family.”

Barry Rand, MBA Sloan ’73, chief executive officer of the AARP, which represents 40 million people age 50 and older, reinforced Carstensen’s suggestion that we spread the chores of life around to extend productivity into old age and relieve the stress on the “sandwich generation” that takes care of children and parents at the same time. 

 He said of the group represented by the AARP, 41 percent still finance their children, 30 percent take care of parents. The over 50 generation, he said, doesn’t “want to expend those bonus years in doing nothing.” He said they feel “there’s a future, I’m still involved in that future, I want to help make that future.”

Several panelists suggested raising the retirement age from 65.

“I love to work – always did,” said 80-yar-old retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. “Many people of my age feel that way.”  She recalled leaving the high court in 2006 to care for her husband, who had Alzheimer’s disease (he died last year after 57 years of marriage). Brokaw asked if she and her husband had discussed the possibility that one of them would be disabled in old age in the years before his diagnosis.

 ”Of course not!” she said emphatically. “You just assume you’re fine. Things will go on.” She said she has since learned that one in every two people over 80 develop Alzheimer’s.

 Rand called for an end to age discrimination in hiring. He said the last few years have seen “100 % increase in age discrimination [actions], because people can’t find jobs.”

 Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, also supported the importance of keeping people in the workplace, particularly women. Yet women still the bear burden of caregiving for elderly parents, and a daughter or daughter-in-law is likely to have that role “three times as much as husbands or brothers,” Sandberg said.

With an aging population, she asked, “How many more women does that drive out of the workforce?”

Issues of longevity underscore inequities in society, and quality of caregiving is largely a function of income.

“If you’re physically fit, mentally sharp, and financially secure, you do really well as an old person,” Carstensen said. “We know already that people with high levels of education fare very well into very advanced ages.”

Neuroscientist and Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky said issues of longevity increasingly have “everything to do with social status – very little to do with who came down with polio or bubonic plague.” More and more, he said, it boils down to “did you pick the right womb?” If, when you arrive at old age, you have a lifetime of being “peripheralized,” the years will make “every metaphorical joint arthritic.”

Turning to the issue of obesity in the young, which threatens to add to long-term costs to health care, Sapolsky said we are now facing the “totally bizarre disease we deal with – a world of kids getting diabetes.”

Yet Carstensen  put a cpositive spin on the dire statistics.

“We’re at a historical point where three, four, and five generations may be alive at the same time,” she said. “A hundred years ago, 20 % of kids were orphaned before they were 18.”

Often that’s framed as a problem, but she asked the audience to imagine a family where grandparents, great-grandparents, and perhaps even great-great grandparents are “all invested in the well-being of the youngest among us.”

“It’s a fantastic achievement,” she said.

— CYNTHIA HAVEN

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Faculty Ponder Medicare Finance Reform Issues
  2. The Focus on Time Makes the Elderly Happier Than the Kids
  3. Optimistic Numbers from TARP Director

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