In 1513, armed with maps, a compass and the instruction of his king, Spanish adventurer Ponce de Leon scoured the coast of Florida for what he hoped was the legendary Fountain of Youth. He never found it.
Five hundred years later, the search continues. For good reason. We're getting older — fast. Each day, nearly 9,400 people in America turn 65. And we are one day closer to 2014, when the last of the 77.5 million boomers turn 50.
The aging of America has implications for the nation. In the recent elections, a majority of the voters were over 50, the first time that's happened. Today, 36 percent of the federal budget is consumed by Social Security and Medicare, a growing cost shouldered by the shrinking population of younger Americans. An aging America also has implications for our communities, where we must rethink our transportation networks, our housing patterns and our schools.
For me, there was an early model for dealing with the challenge of aging in America — my grandfather, John F. Smith. For 23 years, he was a speech and drama professor at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio. In 1950, he turned 70 and was forced to retire. The next day, he applied for a job as custodian at the college gymnasium. They hired him on the spot. It was a heartwarming story that gained national attention. A Sunday magazine headlined its article: "He traded his cap and gown for a mop. He didn't retire. He retreaded."
It was a simple transition, he explained. "I knew what a mop was. I knew what a bucket was. It was hard work, but I tried to do it well."
He was once interviewed by the late Charles Kuralt, the CBS television newsman, who asked him, Which job was more rewarding?
"Every age in life has its own compensation," my grandfather replied. "I'm still looking ahead. I don't want to die. There's too much fun in this world and a lot of good folks. A lot of them. And good books to read and fish to catch and pretty women to admire and good men to know. Why, life is a joy."
He was ahead of his time.
He retired but didn't want to stop working. So he learned new work skills and spent 15 years as the custodian at the college gym.
Like him, more and more people are living longer. We've gained three decades in the past century. Someone born in 1900 could expect to live to 47. Someone born today can expect to live to almost 79. Why? Artificial knees and hips and kidney or lung transplants — even those technological advances have less to do with longer life than better water, cleaner streets, vaccinations and antibiotics. That brings us back to Ponce de Leon. Five centuries later, no one has found the Fountain of Youth. But the Fountain of Youth has found us.
We have the gift of extra years. As we begin a new year, filled with goals and dreams, what will we do with that opportunity?
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