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How America Can Afford to Grow Older: A Vision for the Future

Tom Nelson
Chief Operating Officer of AARP
The West Virginia Governor's Summit on Aging Conference in Chester, WV

Thank you, Frank. I hear you've been doing great work in West Virginia. You've had a lot to be proud of in the past year. I know that you and all of the people in the West Virginia office have done a terrific job with membership-you're up to nearly 300,000 now. And you've tripled the number of people who have signed on to become part of the volunteer corps.

I hope you'll pass along my thanks to your governor, Joe Manchin. I know he shares our commitment to address the important issues that affect an aging population. The issues that we're here to talk about at this Summit on Aging.

And I'd like to thank the Bureau of Senior Services, the AARP West Virginia office, and all the other organizations that had a hand in arranging this conference. I am very pleased to be here.

Often when I talk to a group, I tell them right away that I'm 55-years-old. I get to say that - loud and proud - because I work for AARP. At AARP, we celebrate the aging process. Heck, we don't even let you into our club until you're 50.

The truth is, I start that way because it wakes people up. Gets them to pay attention. They're not used to hearing someone admit to his age. In public. And more than that, they're not used to someone being proud of being over 50.

It would take a lot more than admitting my age to startle all of you. You already know that age isn't something to hide.

But if other people can't accept their age, how can we expect them to be aware of the opportunities and challenges that accompany the aging process?

How can we expect them to anticipate what it will take to create the kind of society that AARP is working toward-a society where everyone can age with dignity and purpose?

So all of us here today need to be the leaders for positive social change. We need to be the ones to ask the tough questions.

Questions like: Can America afford to grow older?

Can we do so without sticking our children and grandchildren with the bills?

Can we help older Americans maintain their quality of life?

Can we preserve the integrity of those programs, public and private, that help older Americans maintain that quality of life?

And how do we achieve these objectives without seriously damaging our economy?

These are some of the most critical issues that we face as the baby boomers edge closer to retirement. In 2008, less than three years from now, the first of the baby boom generation is eligible for Social Security. And three years after that, 2011, is when they'll be covered by Medicare.

Determining how best to adapt to an aging society is one of the most important issues of our time.

Because, right now, West Virginia is among the top three states with the highest percentage of residents who are 65 and older, because you're second only to Florida when it comes to the percentage of older drivers on the road, and because you're looking at population projections that indicate more than one quarter of West Virginians will be over the age of 65 in the year 2030 - I am sure you know just how important this issue is.

You've probably heard the dire predictions:

David Walker, Comptroller General of the United States, has said, and I'm quoting, "The U.S. faces a long-term deficit that will only increase as the baby boomers retire. The resulting financial imbalance will test the nation's spending and tax policies."

Columnist Robert Samuelson has written that, "the central distributional issue of our time is not between rich and poor. It is between retirees and non-retirees."

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the Congressional Budget Office and others have reached similar conclusions.

Clearly, there are challenges with an aging society. So again, we need to ask the question: Can America afford to grow older without economic train wrecks, without pitting the needs of the old against the young, and without leaving future generations to clean up the mess?

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