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The Author Speaks

Interview With Susan Jacoby, Author of 'Never Say Die'

She takes a more critical and skeptical look at old age

Q. You seem to view life as "nasty, brutish and long." Isn't that an awfully dark vision?

A. I would say that my view of life is realistic. I absolutely hope for the best. If I live to be 90, like my mother and my grandmother, I want to be John Paul Stevens, I want to be Betty White. However, I don't think that is anything I can do much about. There is a lot of evidence that genetic endowment plays a huge role in this. There is no reliable scientific evidence that anything you do, from taking vitamin supplements to exercising to engaging in crossword puzzles, significantly delays or prevents Alzheimer's. There's not some kind of magic talisman that will protect us.

Q. You see poverty as a major issue in old age. But aren't older Americans as a group relatively well off, and won't boomers be even more so?

A. Since the 1930s, there has been an enormous decrease in poverty among older people, largely due to the Social Security system and the heyday of private pensions. But the old as a group are not terribly well-off, because the figures are very skewed by the small number of old people who are rich. The household income of women is cut nearly in half when their husbands die. One argument you can make is that boomers are going to be better off because more women have worked more, acquired their own pensions and their own Social Security. The problem is that boomers are going to live longer. The economic crisis of the past two years is going to have great long-term impact. The prospects in retirement for all of the baby boomers are not as good as they looked.

Q. You don't mention what has been called the greatest intergenerational transfer of wealth ever, to the boomer generation from our parents.

A. The longer our parents live, the less that's going to help us [financially]. People who were old and upper middle class, in quite comfortable financial circumstances a few years ago, are really feeling the pinch. There is going to be much less left from older people who are in their 80s and 90s because they are dipping into their capital to live. What's happening now definitely dims the economic prospects for all boomers in old age.

Q. Another big issue you identify is loneliness.

A. Lacking a partner is a problem for some women, but not for others. There is nothing you can do about the fact that many more men than women are dead in every age cohort. Women who live a long time are going to live a lot of their lives without a sexual or romantic partner. It's just a fact. I say it with some sadness. If you're a woman to whom men have been important, this is very bad. It's natural to feel that loss. I wouldn't like the relationship turmoil of my 20s, but I certainly would like to be in love or to have a lover. But I'm not counting on it.

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