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AARP-National Geographic Aging Study Shows Us Where Action Is Needed

Results provide insights that could bring positive changes to our institutions and people’s lives

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Jo Ann Jenkins
Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

It’s hard to amaze our AARP research team, which is one of America’s top repositories of knowledge related to aging. That is why we are so excited by the AARP–National Geographic “Second Half of Life Study.”

It is packed with insights that cut against much of the conventional wisdom about aging in America.

For the study, more than 2,500 Americans answered deep questions about their lives and hopes. Their answers reveal that many negative beliefs about aging are not only incorrect but also nearly opposite of the truth. “Most people are optimistic about aging and do not see it as a bad thing,” notes Debra Whitman, AARP’s chief public policy officer. “People in their 70s and 80s are uplifting examples of resilience because they become more realistic about the changes that happen and are more likely to be happy.”

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But research is useful only if it leads to positive change. As CEO of AARP, I’ve been on a mission to disrupt aging — to challenge outdated stereotypes and attitudes and to find new solutions that help people live better as they age. Here are some of the changes we at AARP hope this report can help spark.

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  • The medical establishment needs to evolve its definition of  “good health” … To survey participants, being in good health primarily means being independent, mobile and of strong mind. You can have heart disease, diabetes, even cancer and still consider yourself healthy, as long as you are being treated and achieving those three goals. The more that doctors acknowledge and support these goals, the better they will serve their patients.
  • … and also its approach to declining health. One of the toughest choices we ever face is deciding whether our ailing parents — or other loved ones, or even ourselves — should undergo that next medical procedure or surgery, particularly if it puts in question future quality of life. Every situation is unique, and each of us brings our own religious and ethical beliefs to those decisions. But survey respondents noted — with surprising clarity — that not only is their focus on quality of life rather than on life extension, but that they also hope for a medical system that is far more accommodating and respectful of their end-of-life choices and desires.
  • The housing industry should embrace aging at home. Posh retirement communities in perpetually sunny locales get lots of news coverage, but most Americans do not want to live in such locations. Rather, far more survey respondents said they want to remain in their own homes as they age. Unfortunately, few homes in the past were developed with older people in mind. As America’s population ages and more homes become multigenerational, the more that we can build “forever homes” from that very first nail, the better we would serve all generations.
  • We need to do a better job educating young adults about retirement finances. Today, a typical life pattern has us working for some 40 years, then living another 20 or more years in a postcareer life of our choosing. It’s clear that we each need ample savings to cover our living costs over those final decades. Yet not only are too few younger adults saving for retirement but, as the survey shows, they also may not have an accurate view of where their retirement income will come from. Whatever we can do as parents, employers or policymakers to urge working adults to save more, we should do it.
  • And we need to do a better job supporting adults in middle age. When is life toughest? Research consistently shows that during our late 40s and early 50s, career pressures often peak, children become teenagers, parental caregiving needs can emerge and community commitments often grow. This study confirms the point yet again. AARP has launched programs for those in these stages of life. But as a culture, we should provide more support for those in this crucial midlife period
  • Younger generations should emulate our health focus. A stereotype that needs to be retired is that older people have an unhealthy fixation on ailments, pills and doctors. The more accurate truth is that older Americans model a healthy lifestyle of eating well, exercising and maintaining positive attitudes — attributes often in less supply for those in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

On our behalf, as well as our partners at National Geographic, we’d like to thank the survey participants for their honesty and wisdom. Know that we heard you and will continue to fight for an America that can accommodate your future as you wish it to be, and to spark new solutions that empower you to choose how you live as you age. 

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